Meet: John B. West
Sleep and Respiration in Microgravity
Who I am:
I am professor of medicine and physiology at the University of California,
San Diego, School of Medicine. Neurolab represents only a small part of
our research program. Of course we have a strong interest in space physiology,
but we also work on pulmonary physiology generally, with a particular
interest in high-altitude physiology. I also have big responsibilities
in the teaching of physiology to first-year medical students.
My Career Journey
I trained in medicine and became interested in lung function partly
because I am a bit of a frustrated engineer at heart. I wanted something
that dealt with pressures and flows and the like. That was an awfully
long time ago.
I got interested in the space program because I had been working on
the distribution of blood flow in the lung which is very much influenced
by gravity. I thought it would be very interesting to see what happened
in weightlessness. That was way back in '67 before Armstrong landed on
the Moon. I spent a year at the NASA Ames Research Center doing some space
physiology, and at that time I put in a proposal for looking at lung function
in astronauts. We've actually been funded continually since 1969. Neurolab
is just one of the many things we've been doing.
In my last couple of years in high school, I had a teacher of physics
and chemistry that had a big influence on me. He was a remarkable man
with a wonderful gift for explanation. He really had more influence than
anybody else, interesting me in a career on mechanisms - how things work
- physics and chemistry, and of course in high school I didn't know much
about medicine or biology. Ultimately for one reason or another I wound
up going into life sciences, but my main interest is in mechanisms: how
do things work? I think that stems largly from Mr. Smith's influence on
Likes/Dislikes about career
As far as the space work, I think that space physiology is a very exciting
and exotic area to be in. I find it stimulating from that point of view.
On the other hand, it's fairly frustrating because everything is so delayed.
For example, we put in a proposal to study lung function in l968 and the
first flight was not until SLS-1 in 1991. That comes to 23 years we waited
for the first flight. So there are frustrations, of course, but it is
an exciting area to be in.
I think a career in medicine is a terrific career because when you die
you can say, "I've probably done more good than harm." I'm not sure you
can say that about all careers.
If you are in college and thinking about going into medical school,
I think medicine has changed a lot in the last few years and it's very
challenging at the present time. It's going through a tremendous period
of evolution. Actually my son is an M.D., Ph.D. student, and he is rather
worried about his future at the present time because of the difficulties
in medicine. But I think medical science has a terrific future, and I
can't think of a better subject to be in. Keep in mind the possiblity
of going into medical research or biological research, because the next
millenium is going to be a magnificent period, the next 50 years in medicine
are going to absolutely change the face of medicine. With the advances
in biology, cell biology, and so on, it's a tremendously exciting area
to be in, and I think some of the best minds in the world are in experimental
medicine or biology at the present time. I think it's a great area.
I've had an interesting career. I climbed with Sir Edmund Hillary in
the Himalayas back in 1960, and that's what got me interested in high
altitude medicine. I led the first American medical research expedition
to Mt. Everest in 1981. I had a strong interest in high altitude physiology,
and I continue that interest. I've just written a book on the history
of high altitude physiology and medicine. I got into the space thing through
my interest in effects of gravity on the lung.
I am just an ordinary guy. I have a wonderful wife, two children, and
When I was in my early teens, I spent my time making radios, things
like that. Unfortunately, it's not too easy for kids to do that now because
you can't make a radio now that compares with what you can buy, so I guess
kids today fiddle with computers, but it's not quite the same. We used
to start with the building blocks and were very interested in the mechanism
of how things happen. I think perhaps now it's a little more difficult
because technology is so far advanced. I think things like science fairs
and that sort of thing are terrific, and any way that kids can have their
interests sparked in things like that are very worthy of support.