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New High-Tech Equipment for Vertebrate Physiology Lab


When Assistant Professor of Biology Cynthia Downs was awarded a Christian A. Johnson Teaching Enhancement award in November 2015, she used the grant to upgrade and expand the vertebrate physiology-teaching lab and offer students high-tech approaches to study aerobic fitness.

Before the upgrade, the aerobic fitness lab had participants run around the track in the field house and take their pulse to monitor heart rate. Now the new equipment would make the data collection process easier. Last semester, the vertebrate physiology class conducted the first test with new equipment on one of the students. The student’s maximal metabolic rate, or the maximum rate at which he can perform aerobic work, was measured while he ran on the treadmill.

These new devices, including a new laptop, a research-grade gas analyzer, a data recorder from iWorx, a mask with tubing and a heart rate monitor, also give students experience working with technologies similar to those in exercise physiology laboratories and in hospitals. For instance, the lab students can conduct experiment comparing the actual number of calories buried during a workout on a piece of equipment, such as an exercise bike, with the calorie count estimated by the equipment.

They can also measure aerobic fitness of a student while she/he runs on a treadmill. This entails recording heart rate, oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production during different levels of work, such as speed and incline of the treadmill. According to those data the fitness level of the student can be determined and compared to specific averages of sex and age. 

 The new equipment is not limited to measuring aerobic capacity, but creates more possibilities. For example, it is able to record oxygen consumption in normal and hypothyroid mice to calculate metabolic rates, to measure electric activity of student's arm muscles during an arm wrestling match, and to measure electric activity of a nerve in an earthworm.

Rachel Haskins ’17, a rising senior working with Downs, is designing a follow-up study for her senior thesis with the equipment. She is planning to either look at the accuracy of the calorie counts calculated by the equipment in the gym or how training affects aerobic capacity. In the future, Downs and Haskins will recruit healthy individuals with no history of health problems as subjects.

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