Extreme environments

Only 15% of our planet is not occupied by water, desert, ice or mountain.

Despite the world’s hostile environments, humans climb the highest of peaks, dive deep underwater and run marathons across deserts. Animals too survive in extreme conditions, enduring both extreme cold and extreme heat. While there is no simple answer, physiologists work to understand how these things are possible.

Human and animal bodies’ responses to extreme environments give us valuable insights into the challenges of these environments and also into life-threatening conditions that provoke the same responses. Extreme environmental physiologists investigate these responses to understand how the body does or does not adapt. The knowledge uncovered through this research helps many groups of people. It can help athletes learn how to perform better in difficult conditions. It can provide firefighters and military personnel with better protection against hostile natural environments.

Equally, findings in extreme environmental physiology can assist in treating life-threatening conditions where physiological responses are similar. For example, studies in cold water help us to understand what goes wrong when someone drowns or has sudden cardiac death. Studies in low-oxygen, high-altitude environments can help us to understand the conditions of intensive care unit patients with oxygen deprivation.

Extreme environmental physiology has much left to discover. A career in this area promises to be both rewarding and exciting.

Get inspired!

How do I get involved in extreme environmental physiology research?

An undergraduate degree in any life science subject (including physiology, biomedicine, medicine, sports science, neuroscience, genetics etc.) will open the door to a career in physiology research.

Following this, you will have to apply for a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) if you wish to pursue a research career in a university. This involves a substantial research project, typically 3-4 years in length, and training in scientific as well as transferable skills. These are usually fully funded by Research Councils, charities or increasingly industry.

Graduates often complete a Master’s degree before undertaking a PhD. Master’s degrees like a MSc (Master of Science), MRes (Master of Research) and, increasingly, integrated Master’s degrees (e.g. M.Biol or Master of Biology) help to develop a greater understanding of a particular scientific area. This will give graduates a better grounding and make them more competitive for PhD positions.

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