July 5, 2018

Studying sleep apnea sets undergrad on new career path

Markin USRP program piques Scott MacKay's interest in research
Scott MacKay performs an electroencephalography (EEG) recording on his father at the UCalgary Foothills campus.
Scott MacKay performs an electroencephalography (EEG) recording on his father at the UCalgary Foothi Jordan Squires, University of Calgary

Kinesiology student Scott MacKay was not planning on applying for the Markin Undergraduate Student Research Program (USRP) in Health & Wellness. But the program ended up defining a new career path for him, and MacKay says it was probably the most useful thing he did during his entire university degree.

MacKay, who convocated June 8 with a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology at the University of Calgary, applied for the Markin USRP studentship at the beginning of his final year. “I realized that I wanted to do some research and the first thing that came to mind was the Markin USRP because of how strongly it was promoted through Kinesiology,” he says.

The Markin program gives students the opportunity to experience what it is like to work in a lab and be mentored by faculty investigating health and wellness across campus. MacKay presented his work at the annual spring research mini-symposium hosted by the program.

Reaching out to a professor 

Before being accepted for the program, MacKay reached out to Dr. Marc Poulin, PhD, after learning that Poulin was researching sleep apnea in older adults. Poulin, who specializes in clinical and exercise physiology and neuroscience, is a professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM).

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that occurs when someone experiences pauses in breathing or periods of shallow breathing while sleeping. MacKay chose to team up with Poulin because of an interest in exercise and aging he developed while volunteering with UCalgary’s Rehabilitation and Fitness program. As a volunteer, MacKay was given the responsibility of guiding an older adult through a personalized exercise plan.

After this experience, MacKay worked with Poulin as part of the Brain in Motion study. He collected data related to sleep quality before and after a six-month aerobic exercise intervention in older adults. This data will help determine if exercise is effective at reducing symptoms of sleep apnea for those not already diagnosed with the condition.

Although the process of requesting to join Poulin was challenging at first, MacKay quickly felt at ease once he was introduced to the research team and began to work in the state-of-the-art lab at UCalgary’s Foothills campus.

“It can be sort of intimidating to go out and ask a professor if you can do research in their lab because you don’t know what to expect or what they will say,” explains MacKay. “But after working in the lab I found that everyone has been extremely inviting.”

Exciting, hands-on learning

After that experience MacKay is more interested in research than ever before, specifically in the field of sleep apnea — and he is even considering a career in this field.

“It’s the most exciting thing I did. The Markin USRP was very hands-on and it has got me very interested in research in the future,” he says.

Marc Poulin is a professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and in the departments of physiology and pharmacology, and clinical neurosciences at the CSM. He is member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, the Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta, and the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at CSM, and holds the Brenda Strafford Foundation Chair in Alzheimer Research.