Aaron Van Slyke never imagined he’d be working in a lab studying one of the heart’s potassium channels and a rare congenital heart condition called long QT syndrome. But the 24-year-old Simon Fraser University student finds himself not only immersed in such a research project but also enamoured with it.
“It’s so easy to get attached to a project,” Van Slyke says in a Commercial Drive café during a study break. “It’s challenging and inspiring.”
Van Slyke is earning his master of science degree in biomedical physiology and kinesiology. Formerly the school of kinesiology, the department of biomedical physiology and kinesiology is now part of SFU’s faculty of science. The change was made earlier this year to better reflect the department’s focus on the kind of research Van Slyke is enjoying so much. In other words, if the term kinesiology makes you think of someone who teaches high-school gym, think again.
“We don’t really focus on physical education or athletics per se,” department chair Peter Ruben says in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “Our grads are equipped to work in those areas, but we focus on science.”¦Grads usually go on to be health practitioners. They end up really well prepared for other stuff, like med school. The feedback we get from grads who’ve gone on say they come out feeling incredibly well-qualified to study medicine.”
That’s not to say that those who study kinesiology and go on to become gym teachers don’t exist. They do, as do those who become personal trainers, ergonomic consultants, and athletic therapists. But the field is far more diverse than that.
“The career opportunities are huge,” Ruben says. “Anything pertaining to the practice of health care is what we prepare people for.”
Besides medicine, graduates pursue careers such as physiotherapy, occupational therapy, dentistry, and chiropractic, as well as research.
“We look for people interested in the science related to human health,” he says of prospective students. “People need a strong foundation in science and a willingness to immerse oneself in the science of physiology.
“We provide undergrads with research opportunities,” adds Ruben, who got his start studying the brains of slugs at the cellular level and who now explores proteins in cell membranes. “It’s for people who are interested in going into the lab and really doing science, doing experiments, not them just sitting there in a lecture but getting their hands wet.”
There’s no denying the potential for serious scientific investigation: the labs in SFU’s BPK department include those dedicated to aerospace physiology, cancer genetics, molecular cardiac physiology, locomotion, neurokinesiology, metabolic biochemistry, and neuromuscular mechanics, among many others. The topics of research are vast: human thermoregulation, dietary antioxidants, congenital epilepsy, molecular alterations predicting cancer development, neural control of movement, neurological disease, spinal-cord injury, and fluorescence-based electrophysiology, to name just a few.
Csilla Horvath, who’s lived in Port Coquitlam ever since she and her family moved from Transylvania, graduated with her bachelor of science degree in kinesiology this past May and is currently working on her master of science in biomedical physiology and kinesiology. She had originally majored in biology but changed track after taking an introductory kinesiology course.
“I had no intentions of either working in a lab or doing field work in a forest for the rest of my life,” Horvath, 22, tells the Straight. “Kinesiology offers real-life applications of science and physiology.”¦I eventually decided I would like to know more about the unseen molecular world and its applications to human health.” Now working with SFU’s molecular cardiac-physiology group, Horvath has done research on obesity and human response to extreme environments, and she hopes to pursue a career in medicine.
Van Slyke’s plan is to study medicine as well. He sees his science degree in biomedical physiology and kinesiology as a stepping stone, one that could give him a competitive edge when it comes time to apply for med school.
“Why would I do a science degree and learn about plants when I want to be in medicine?” asks the Coquitlam resident. “I’ve taken courses in histology, anatomy, human physiology; it’s almost like a head start. Plus, being in kinesiology, you can actually see if you like it [before going into medicine].”
He admits that after his first year he wasn’t feeling overly enthused about the program. But after a close family member nearly died, he was determined to get into a profession where he could help other people.
“When something like that happens to you, life is real,” he says. “You have to do something important.”
For him, the field is as exciting as it is challenging.
“There’s never a day where I’m bored,” he says. “It’s a really good environment. There’s a supportive network and I’m surrounded by fabulous people—they’re brilliant—who love what they do. It’s a really cool community.”