The sky is literally the limit for the Department of Health, Exercise & Sports Science researchers huddled up in the space next to Carlisle Gym.
You may miss the bright turquoise door when walking by, but inside, lies one of the most unique pieces of history at the University of New Mexico.
Inside, you’ll see a massive, 100-ton, sealed container stretching the length of the room. That’s the high-altitude chamber, capable of simulating what it’s like to reach over 20,000 feet in elevation, or four atmospheres (135 feet) below sea level. There are only a handful of facilities in the U.S. that can simulate high altitude through hypobaric hypoxia, and even fewer at universities. That means the ability to simulate things like scaling mountains or diving in oceans, is especially unique to UNM.
“There are some institutions that use hypoxic tents or things where they change the amount of oxygen in the air,” Professor and Exercise Physiology Lab Director Christine Mermier said. “It sort of simulates high altitude, but not the way this chamber does by changing the pressure. We're able to simulate the way people really feel when they go to high altitude. ”
Graduate and teaching assistant Quint Berkemeier is just as invested in the extraordinary research tool at UNM’s disposal.
“In terms of the chamber itself, hypobaric hypoxia, the ability to simulate that or to realistically elicit an actual high altitude environment is very unique in an educational institution,” Berkemeier said. “There's only a handful of research institutions in the United States that can decrease barometric pressure in the altitude chamber. Even though it might look like it's from a different lifetime, the research that we carry out is still quite impactful.”
For people who don’t know the first thing about exercise research, it may look like a big white and green tube at first glance. Still, upon a closer look, and while hearing its storied past, you start to feel a strong tug of interest.
“I think instead of thinking of this as sort of an old thing, I think that it's historic and it's amazing because it runs with a water-cooled engine,” Mermier said. “It's been running off and on since the 1960’s. Who can say that about many cars or many other things that have an engine?”
How did this kind of equipment find its way to UNM? There's Professor William Bynum to thank for that.
'He was fearless'
Bynum had taken a UNM ROTC group to the Corpus Christi Naval Base when he discovered the altitude chamber unused and gathering dust. Without a second thought, he petitioned the Navy to let UNM have it for physical education research. Then, it was worth about $24,000.
“He saw this thing sitting there at this base and it didn't look like it was being used, and this guy was kind of fearless,” Mermier said. “He said, ‘hey, if you're not using this, can we have it?’ I don't know if it came from a ship or a submarine, but it came from a naval vessel of some kind. It simulates high pressure as well, has some very thick windows and thick steel.”
After negotiations in the name of research, Bynum got his high-altitude future approved. Although the Navy added they can take it back whenever they need it, they may have a tough time getting it back. The chamber required a truck, train, railroad track construction, and a whole lot of creative thinking to get it here.
“This thing weighs many tons,” Mermier said. “So to bring this thing here was a major deal. It involved trucks and trains. I believe they came on a railroad, but I think it might have been trucked from the railroad to UNM.”
The work didn’t stop once the chamber arrived, either.
“This building wasn't here. They had to dig a big hole because all of the piping, dropped this thing on top of the big hole. They built this building around the hole with the big thing in here,” Mermier said. “This guy then negotiated with companies to get parts on his own dime. At the time, I don't think the university knew the importance of having something like this. In the end, they did help quite a bit.”
Between 1962 and 1965, as imprinted on the side of the chamber, alongside Bynum’s name, research took off. Still, as time went on, buildings changed, and funding became scarce. For a few decades, the chamber would close its doors.
'It was kind of a shock'
It was not until Mermier and her colleague Rob Robergs discovered it in the 1990s that it began operation again. Somehow, although the old-school electric engine, altitude and vertical speed indicator and dozens of pipes had not been touched in years, they were still fully operational.
“We first came over here, and it was kind of a shock because no one had used it for many years,” she said. “There was a record player here with the Four Tops on it, which is a Motown group from the ‘60s. It was kind of a mess. I think that most people didn't even know this existed, so we started to try and get this place in order and get the pigeons out.”
After sorting through old collars and dog bowls, and testing out a treadmill and stationary bike from the 1950s, Mermier realized she had struck gold.
“I'm happy that I was here to start it back up after it was not working for so many years,” she said. “We really did have to fight a little bit for some of the maintenance and supplies we needed to help this run, but in the long run, we were very supported by our department and our college.”
Since then, the chamber has helped researchers understand each and every way altitude changes affect our bodies. There have been sessions on acute mountain sickness, overnight stays inside the chamber, and teachers and hikers who wanted to get used to high elevation before tackling Mount Everest. In fact, a couple of hummingbirds once called the chamber home, as the UNM biology department studied their behavior at different altitudes. There have even been uses and visits through grants by NASA, the Army and the American College of Sports Medicine. Mermier has even dabbled on both ends herself.
“I've been in there many times. I've been a researcher. I’ve been a participant. I've led a lot of research studies in the chamber. I would say we've had several large scale studies going on here,” she said.
There have been collaborations that added some upgrades along the way, like a sealed tube to pass samples in and out, as well as air conditioning for an old space, which became increasingly toasty in the summertime.
“We got something where we could pass something through here without losing pressure. That's a big deal because you go in and the door is sealed shut. You raise the altitude, drop the altitude. You can't just open the door,” Mermier said. “If you forget something, you're in there or have to either start the whole thing over. That collaboration helped make this better.”
'What are the positive health benefits?'
Decades later, research is still well underway. Berkemeier has taken up the helm when it comes to using something historic and finding out something new.
“You could say we’re using something from the past to move into the future,” he said.
As someone who has always loved the outdoors, hiked and competed in cycling, it was no surprise Berkemeier felt like Mermier did when he discovered the chamber.
“I've always had that connection with exercise and high altitude. When I got here to UNM, I actually didn't know when I arrived that we had this very unique altitude chamber,” he said. “You get the shock and awe response because it is like going back to the 1960s, which I totally geek out about.”
Since then he has been part of studies involving sprinting at high altitude, its impact on skeletal muscle and gastrointestinal distress, just to name a few.
“We want to see what the real-world molecular adaptations are to doing exercise at high altitude,” Berkemeier said.
Now, the chamber is home to his current research, which focuses on intermittent, moderate exercise at different altitudes. What does riding a bike look like at Albuquerque’s elevation, versus 14,000 feet, versus resting at 14,000 feet? Contrary to research conducted in the 1990s, Berkemeier believes the answer to altitude’s impact on molecular mechanisms lies in skeletal muscle, not blood.
“What I'm trying to do now is look at the effect of intermittent high-altitude exposure. That’s going up in altitude, exercising for a set amount of time, and then going back down, looking at the effect of that on molecular mechanisms in skeletal muscle,” he said. “I am trying to more closely simulate what the general population would do in terms of exercise. The answer might not be in the blood. Perhaps there are things that are happening in muscle and that we know very little about.”
Participants are immensely committed to the process. In addition to completing an hour of sweat-inducing exercise at different elevations, they receive multiple rounds of muscle biopsies, which requires numbing and fasting. It’s part of the reason Berkemeier is only looking at healthy, active individuals right now.
“We're going up quite high, perhaps higher than most individuals living at high altitude, but then exercising at a lower altitude,” he said. “That's what the majority of us do here in Albuquerque. We've got Sandia right around the corner. We generally go up in altitude to exercise and then come back down, whether it be cycling, hiking or running.”
By using all of these factors and data surrounding autophagy and angiogenesis–oxygen processes related to oxygen sensing markers. Berkemeier hopes the chamber can reveal the benefits of exercise at higher elevations. That means potentially more blood vessels, which means more oxygen, and more structured cells. More of all of these things add up to proper bodily homeostasis and a healthier life.
“Autophagy is something we can think of as being like the gene Pac-Man. We have essentially a cellular recycling system occurring within the muscle in which we are getting rid of disused and disorganized cells, so it's a very healthy process for maintaining homeostasis,” he said. “There's evidence to suggest that high altitude exposure and exercise may catalyze that process.”
The real-world implications could be especially huge for New Mexico.
“We want to be able to quantify how exercise is healthy for individuals who commonly go out and hike or ride or run at high altitude, or competitive athletes, wildland firefighters or mountaineers whose occupation is to go up to these altitudes and conduct some sort of strenuous physical activity. If we establish that altitude can elicit these responses, we might want to look and see what strategies we can use to further amplify these adaptations,” Berkemeier said.
A lab member on the outside will close the heavy door to the chamber, and mallet it shut, to make sure pressure doesn’t leak out. From there, the red pipes produce the pressure, and the blue pipes bring it down while elevation is monitored by a mercury barometer. Technicians work the knobs and levels to adjust the pressure to bring the chamber up in altitude, and decrease it one thousand feet at a time, to make sure no one is.
“If there are ever signs of participants struggling, we can drop the workload to try to get them through the hour,” Berkemeier said. “If they have any signs or symptoms of acute mountain sickness, or if they prefer to come down, we come down because safety is more important than collecting the data.”
How quickly altitude ascends is displayed on an altimeter from an old plane. The mallet once again makes an appearance.
“I never knew why we had to do that until I talked to Dr. Bynum,” Mermier said. “The reason is when you fly in a small plane, there's a lot of vibration. These altimeters, because they come off of a small plane, are meant to deal with vibration. They really don't work unless you're whacking them.”
After that hour of cycling, it’s down one thousand feet again. It’s a time-intensive commitment, but Berkemeier’s peers are such chamber fanatics as well, they were more than happy to help.
“It's moderate intensity, so not vigorous, but you do notice that altitude definitely has an effect on your ability to maintain exercise at a certain intensity. It is difficult from that perspective, as pressure changes,” Berkemeier said.
'We take very good care of it'
The chamber itself may look intimidating, but the simple, durable design makes studies seamless and repairs infrequent. Its sturdy, water-powered electric engine is checked often, to make sure it's still up to standards. That’s important as if enough damage is done, the parts don’t exist anymore to fix it.
“When the company came for the first time, they were very concerned that if we had let it run any longer with the bearing damage, there would be no way for them to find a part because the engine is so old, but it is something that, you know, is inherent in having something historic,” Mermier said. “It’s hard to get it fixed and find parts, but we take very, very good care of it.”
Bynum’s keen eye and dedication are the reason the Department of Health, Exercise & Sports Science can explore ideas so many research institutions don’t have an opportunity to. Although he passed away a few years ago, Bynum made one final stop with his family in 2013 when he was in his late 80s, to bid farewell to his legacy.
“It was a really special moment because that was the first time I really met him. We really wanted to give him a lot of credit for what he had done because it has changed the science that has come out of the University of New Mexico,” Mermier said.
One day, the department hopes to add a plaque in honor of Bynum’s bravery at Corpus Christi that day. While the researchers know his contribution, they want as many as possible to recognize it.
“I really hope he knew. I think that he did feel like people really appreciated him and cared that he did something that really, you know, changed a lot of our graduates’ and students’ lives by giving them the opportunity to do this,” Mermier said. “It’s all because he had the thought back in the 1960s to bring this thing here, and he realized it might be an important unit for education.”
All of Bynum’s students, Mermier’s students, and plenty more look at the chamber in the right way–with a glimmer in the eye, at the spectacle and opportunity before them.
“I'm super proud of my students who do work here. It's not easy. I think that they realize what we have here and they decide to use it for that purpose. You know, I'm just super happy about the work that we've done here, and I have to give the credit to the students,” she said.
For any current students, staff, faculty, or even alumni who want to see or experience this chamber firsthand, there is no time like the present.
“I hope that if anyone sees this, they will ask me to come visit because it's really fascinating to go inside. It's fascinating to see the whole operation. I hope that anyone who wants to feel high altitude could come in and experience it,” Mermier said.
“The first time you go up in the chamber, it's an experience for sure. It’s pretty crazy when you look at it. It does look like it came off of a World War II submarine,” Berkemeier said.
The team hopes there are even more years of research ahead with the chamber. If it’s given the same love, care and appreciation the current wave of students and faculty show, there’s hardly any doubt.
“We check the oil just the way we would with a car and oil. We just try really hard to keep it really well maintained as much as we can, not being mechanics ourselves,” Mermier said. “We think there's no reason that it won't last another 50 years if it's well taken care of in the future. It was built well and it was built to last, and here we are in 2023 and it's still ticking.”