Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Stephen Wright – The Wright Heart

Article by Elizabeth Karvasarski

Graphic design by Colleen Paris

As an undergraduate and graduate student in Exercise Science at the University of Toronto (UofT), Dr. Stephen Wright transitioned into the Institute of Medical Science (IMS) program to pursue his PhD, which he received in 2018. Dr. Wright sat down virtually with IMS Magazine to discuss the academic journey that led him to his current role as a post-doctoral fellow in the Center for Heart, Lung & Vascular Health at the University of British Columbia (UBC). While discussing his different research projects, Dr. Wright also shared insightful advice for future students who are interested in pursuing careers in academia.

After spending approximately seven years in the Faculty of Kinesiology at UofT, Dr. Wright wanted to gain new perspectives on research, while staying at a world-class research university. Therefore, he decided to transition from exercise science and working in the Athletic Center, to conducting research in a hospital setting through the IMS, which he believed would be a great way to get fresh perspectives.

Dr. Stephen Wright

As a Master of Science (MSc) student in Exercise Science under the supervision of Dr. Jack Goodman, Dr. Wright started off investigating the relevance of heart function to exercise capacity for high-performance athletes. While pursuing his MSc, Dr. Wright reckoned that the MSc degree does an excellent job of sparking your interest for further research, as you become cognizant of how little you know. Taking a step back from athletes, Dr. Wright became particularly interested in understanding heart function. This influenced his transition from studying athletes during his MSc to investigating heart function in healthy  adults during his PhD. He realized “To really understand the heart, you need to examine how it functions in a variety of scenarios.”

Dr. Wright completed his PhD at the Mount Sinai Hospital Catheterization Research Laboratory, supervised by Dr. Susanna Mak. His project explored heart function of healthy individuals. In the literature, there was a limited understanding of normal heart function in the human heart due to the lack of data available from “truly healthy people”. Usually, individuals who receive tests of cardiac function, such as a right heart catheterization, are referred by their doctors due to a variety of factors. They may have limited exercise tolerance, be sick, or  have heart problems. In some of these individuals, the data from a right heart catheterization will show that the heart is not the cause of their problems. Therefore, Dr. Wright explained that often these people are the ones assigned as ‘controls’ in studies, and are used to understand normal heart function. The problem here is that these individuals may not actually be heathy or reflect ‘normal’ physiology. His project addressed this issue by recruiting 36 people who had no evidence of cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, or other acute or chronic illnesses. In the catheterization research laboratory, they studied how these participants’ hearts function at rest and during exercise via right heart catheterization. “The project contributed a substantial amount of truly healthy control data to our society’s shared knowledge,” Dr. Wright explained.

By the time Dr. Wright completed his PhD, he had spent approximately 12 years at the UofT. While still wanting to continue investigating heart function and continuing doing human research at world-leading institutions, Dr. Wright was ready for a different experience. He was offered   opportunities to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship at the Baker Institute in Melbourne, Australia, and the Center for Heart, Lung & Vascular Health at UBC. Dr. Wright ultimately chose UBC because it offered a hybrid between the exercise science and medical science environments. And being an avid snowboarder for 15 years, moving out West seemed like a great fit for Dr. Wright.

Currently, Dr. Wright is continuing to look at integrated heart function while ultimately addressing the question: “What determines stroke volume (the amount of blood that your heart pumps)?” He and his lab are also looking at how changes in lung function affect the heart, which is an extension of his PhD work, but now integrating multiple organ systems. The core focus of the project is to understand if age-related changes in lung mechanics change pressures inside the chest and volumes that the lungs operate at during exercise, and if this in turn mechanically impacts the heart. Dr. Wright is using echocardiography (using ultrasound waves to make images of the heart) to look at heart structure and function. Various modes of echocardiography are being used. 3D imaging measures the volume of blood in the heart chamber, while Doppler measurements allow quantification of blood flow velocities. Speckle tracking is used to assess the motion of the myocardium (heart muscle) over the cardiac cycle. Additionally, the project investigates whether those differences affect males and females in the same way, since understanding the extent to which male and female hearts function similarly is very important.

“To really understand the heart, you need to examine how it functions in a variety of scenarios.”

When asked what advice he would give to IMS students, Dr. Wright believes students can maximize their chances of a successful and enjoyable graduate career “by finding the ideal Venn diagram overlap between yourself, your research project, and your supervisor”. As a student, it is important to be generally curious, have the capacity to work hard, and learn to be persistent. Your project should be something that is intrinsically interesting to you, and impactful to society. It is also vital to be able to communicate the importance of your project. Your supervisor should not only be successful in their own area, but also be a skilled mentor. A good mentor values and shows interest in your career, progress, and well-being. It is important to be aware of the difference between a successful researcher who gets funding and awards, and a successful mentor who trains highly qualified future research leaders. Some of this you can’t control, but you increase the likelihood of the ideal Venn diagram overlap if you do your homework. This can be achieved by talking to people who work in your prospective lab or previously worked with your supervisor. If these conversations are complimentary and positive, it is a good sign. Dr. Wright explains that while graduate school is a lot of work, it can and should be a fun, positive experience, and the IMS does a great job of positioning students to perform cutting-edge research with world-class mentors.