HFrom hot to cold, from the cardiovascular system to the brain, from elite athletes to firefighters, Stephen Cheung’s work cuts a broad path.
The Professor of Kinesiology’s research on human physiology and performance in extreme environments has earned him the nickname Dr. Freeze, and now it has earned him this year’s Award for Distinguished Research and Creative Activity, an internal recognition Brock University has offered since 1994.
“I see the award as a mid-career boost and a validation of my decision to join Brock 10 years ago, which was a really great career move with many opportunities,” says Cheung, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Environmental Ergonomics.
Cheung examines how extreme temperatures affect muscle and heart function, blood flow, oxygen levels in the body, the ability to think, and other physiological systems.
“I study how our body controls temperature, how being hot or cold affects our performance, and how we can make work and play in extreme environments safer,” he says.
To do so, Cheung uses highly specialized equipment in his Environmental Ergonomics Lab (EEL), a state-of-the-art facility that regulates temperature, humidity and oxygen content.
Cheung and his team take a variety of physical readings from participants who exercise in various conditions, allowing the researchers to study the effects of multiple environmental stressors on human physiology and performance.
The lab features an environmental tank with water varying from eight to 45 degrees Celsius, and an air chamber with temperatures ranging from -30 to +50 degrees Celsius.
“It is quite unique to be able to manipulate both temperature and oxygen at the same time,” he says. “We can replicate the altitude of approximately Mexico City (2,300 metres) and do that while either in the cold or heat.”
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and Ontario Centres of Excellence are among Cheung’s research funders.
Cheung has worked with the military, firefighters, miners, search and rescue, elite athletes, clothing manufacturers and other partners on projects ranging from improving survival models, to creating specialized clothing, to developing hydration and heat adaptation policies.
Currently, Cheung is partnering with a Sudbury-based mining company to create a vest for miners with the technology to monitor and control body temperature.
He has published a number of influential papers in the past few years, including a study that found competitive athletes performed equally well regardless of whether they were hydrated or dehydrated, and how “motivational self-talk” determines success when exercising in the heat.
Cheung is also a prolific popular science writer, publishing multiple books on the science of cycling along with the leading textbook in environmental physiology.
“Dr. Cheung has excelled in his research achievements, the training of his students, and his scholarly performance,” says Brock Vice President Research Joffre Mercier.
“His research papers have been well received in academic and non-specialist circles and have led to innovative, real-life applications,” says Mercier.
“He provides his students many possibilities to pursue a broad range of research in a collegial, supportive environment and has created a number of dynamic, fruitful industry partnerships.”
Cheung, who joined Brock from Dalhousie University in 2007, says he enjoys combining a broad range of research, industry partnerships, popular science writing, and other pursuits.
“This opens the door to more opportunities and gives me a continuing sense of adventure and wonder as I explore new ideas,” he explains.
Keeping a broad research program has also enabled Cheung to attract graduate students from across Canada and internationally.
“I don’t constrain them to any one particular research program that’s very narrow or just what I’m doing right now; I allow them a lot of scope to explore what they’re really interested in. My only rule to them is that, if you can get me interested in it, we’ll study it,” says Cheung.
“I take a huge pride in their development and take their mentorship very seriously. So when they succeed, I’m just as happy as if I had gotten that same success, whether it’s future positions, awards or anything like that.”
The Award for Distinguished Research and Creativity recognizes faculty who demonstrate outstanding research achievements, contributions to the training of future researchers, and strong scholarly or creative performance.
This one-year award in the form of a research grant is not attached to any specific research activity or proposal. Each awardee will give one lecture to the Brock University community.