Peter Buzzacott’s Research Journey

Buzzacott poses with a small hyperbaric chamber at the Université de Bretagne Occidentale in Brest, France. Photo: Courtesy of Peter Buzzacott

¿Cuándo empezó a bucear?

I got certified in 1992 on the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia. For the next five years I dived in Turkey, Thailand, and on the shipwrecks of Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, Scotland — all over the place. In 1997 I completed instructor training at Bass Lake in South Africa and then started teaching in Wales, where I lived. My wife and I moved to Western Australia in 1999, and I opened a diver training facility at the local boat dealership. Life was pretty good for a few years, and I issued more than 500 certifications from basic open-water diver to technical decompression diving.

It was quiet in the winter there, so I went back to university and earned a bachelor’s degree in training and development. After that, I spent another two years researching dive injuries while earning my master’s degree in public health. I then closed the dive business to focus on dive research, and around that time I took up cave diving.

¿Dónde hizo su doctorado?

En 2005 le pregunté al difunto Richard Vann, Ph.D., si podía trabajar en mi doctorado con él, pero quería quedarme en la Universidad de Australia Occidental (University of Western Australia, UWA) Después de analizarlo un poco, decidió que dividir mi programa entre dos universidades no iba a funcionar, así que en 2006 comencé en la UWA. En 2007, Vann me invitó a postularme para una pasantía de DAN. Mi solicitud fue aceptada, y él me recogió en el aeropuerto a finales de mayo.

Ese año éramos bastantes pasantes, y todos nos capacitamos para reunir datos para el proyecto Project Dive Exploration (PDE). Después de una semana, los demás volaron a diversos destinos de buceo, y yo me quedé en DAN con Erin de Carolina del Sur y Alex de Colorado. Trabajábamos en proyectos en la oficina de DAN o la Universidad Duke (Duke University) durante la semana e íbamos a bucear el fin de semana. Ese verano, Alex y yo hicimos 135 buceos en seis estados. Nuestro primer estudio de observación mostró que los límites de no descompresión en los manuales del usuario de las computadoras de buceo no eran una guía confiable por lo conservadoras que probablemente serían las computadoras para el buceo en lagos a grandes altitudes.

Buzzacott collects water samples in an Australian cave
Buzzacott recoge muestras de agua en una cueva de Australia. Foto: Colin Murray

¿Qué hizo una vez que finalizó la pasantía?

I returned to Western Australia and continued collecting data for PDE — more than 1,500 dive profiles in all. Meanwhile, I dived, usually in caves, and then I finished my doctorate and presented my findings at the European Underwater and Baromedical Society meeting in Istanbul, Turkey. The Norwegian professor and dive researcher Alf Brubakk, M.D., Ph.D., was one of my examiners, and he chaired the morning session before I presented my results. I was nervous, but a month later I learned that he passed my thesis with only minor corrections.

Para ese entonces había obtenido mi certificación para bucear con Trimix con niveles de oxígeno bajos (Trimix hipóxico), que usaba para bucear en cuevas muy profundas. Pasé los siguientes dos años buceando en minas en Suecia, buceando en pozos en cuevas de Polonia y explorando las gigantes cuevas llenas de agua 91 metros (300 pies) debajo de la llanura de Nullarbor, una inmensa meseta de piedra caliza en la costa sur de Australia Central. Allí es donde buceo en la actualidad.

¿Cómo terminó en Europa?

After finishing my doctorate, I was wondering what to do next when I received an email inviting me to apply for a two-year postdoctoral fellowship in decompression research as part of the Physiopathology of Decompression (PHYPODE) Project at the Université de Bretagne Occidentale in France. On Christmas Day 2012, my wife and I arrived in Brest, France. The university did not reopen until January 4, which gave us a couple of weeks to explore.

On my first day, I walked to work carrying a small French-English pocket dictionary, counting my steps along the way. “Une, deux, trois.” By the time I got to work, I could count in French.

Buzzacott exiting through a restriction in the Source de la Douix cave, Châtillon-sur-Seine, France
Buzzacott unclips a sidemount tank to exit through a restriction in the Source de la Douix cave, Châtillon-sur-Seine, France. Photo: Courtesy Peter Buzzacott

¿Qué estaba haciendo allí?

The work was fascinating, and François Guerrero, Ph.D., was a delight to work for and very demanding. He would encourage us to aim higher, submit our results to better journals, and make the most of every opportunity that came our way. I mentored three doctoral students — one researching cultured cells, one decompressing rats, and one using human subjects. In addition to helping them, I looked at population-level epidemiological data. This time in my career was highly productive, and I made some dear friends with whom I still work.

I cave dived all over France and northern Italy on weekends and holidays. Other trips took me to lakes in Germany, shipwrecks in Croatia, flooded buildings underneath Budapest, and mines in Belgium, Slovakia, and a few other countries. I even won a research grant to visit Brubakk’s lab in Norway. While there, I flew to Rana, Norway, and dived in the arctic Plura Cave.

Between all this diving, we worked on our interests in decompression sickness’s genetic determinants. We imagined what it would be like if we had a test that could tell us if someone’s genes were upregulated and they were peaking in terms of protection right before a big dive. We designed a selective breeding program and bred a strain of rat that was highly resistant to decompression, and this work continues.

¿Qué hizo a continuación?

As this wonderful time ended, Petar Denoble, M.D., D.Sc., offered me a position at DAN. My wife and I sold our home and moved to North Carolina. It was fantastic — I published a lot of dive research over the next few years and made a lot of dives spanning 20 states. DAN sent me to give talks at dive shows and dive clubs, which I really enjoyed. I gave 32 presentations in my last year at DAN. The dive clubs were the best. I’d give a talk to a packed room, and then we’d go for dinner somewhere. I’d end up at a table with people who had been diving all their lives. There could be 150 years of dive experience at the table, and the plentiful dive stories came out fast, especially if you mentioned the “old days.”

Meanwhile, I was the DAN Annual Diving Report editor, and I was running the DAN Internship program. I had come full circle. During my time at DAN, I published a few epidemiology papers I still consider among my best work. I worked on estimating the risk of dive injuries in recreational divers, which is still my focus. Everyone else — military divers, dive scientists, etc. — has someone closely looking after them, but recreational divers are a fascinating bunch.

¿Dónde está ahora?

In July 2018, after three and a half years at DAN, I accepted an offer at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia. Now I am the director of graduate research, which means I help all the master’s and doctoral students stay on track. I also teach one unit, applied paramedic bioscience, which I really enjoy. The rest of my time I spend on my own research, by which I mean my doctoral students’ research.

Aún colaboro con investigadores fuera de mi universidad. El año pasado obtuve la beca de investigación DAN/Alfred Bove, la cual estoy utilizando para establecer un laboratorio húmedo en nuestro nuevo centro de tratamiento en cámara hiperbárica. Tenemos investigadores estudiantes de doctorado que estudian las burbujas y la función cardíaca en los buzos deportivos y tenemos previsto agregar a un tercero para estudiar la narcosis por nitrógeno. La beca es una excelente oportunidad para desarrollar una nueva generación de científicos de buceo.

Buzzacott diving at Dutch Springs north of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
Buzzacott se prepara para bucear en Dutch Springs al norte de Bethlehem, Pensilvania. Foto: David Charash

What’s left that you want to discover?

There is one big question I haven’t yet answered but would like to: Does diving add to our life expectancy or reduce it? I’m also interested in whether deep vein thrombosis in commercial airline passengers is a form of decompression sickness and how we can identify recreational divers who are prone to bubbles after diving. I can’t pin it down for you — there is too much in the world that holds my interest. There just aren’t enough hours in the day.

I never looked back — I still do both kinds of work. I get to switch from basic science in the lab one day to being an attending physician in the emergency department the next, and I’m delighted with how things have worked out.

Buzzacott prepares for a rebreather dive in Wisconsin
Buzzacott se prepara para un buceo con rebreathers (recirculadores) en Wisconsin. Foto: Tamara Thomsen

Buzzacott at Duke University hyperbaric chamber
Buzzacott se prepara para ingresar a la cámara hiperbárica de la Universidad Duke (Duke University). Foto: Alex Ruehle

Buzzacott speaks at a dive medicine conference in Shanghai, China
Buzzacott habla en una conferencia de medicina de buceo en Shanghái, China.
Foto: cortesía de Peter Buzzacott

© Alert Diver — Q2 2022

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