Dr. Jonathan Smirl

I am a post-doctoral Fellow in the Sports Concussion Research Lab at UBC

Tell us about yourself

I was originally from Victoria BC where I spent my first 28 years before relocating to Kelowna BC in 2008. Since arriving in Kelowna, I have completed my MSc and PhD in cerebrovascular physiology at UBC and am currently a post-doctoral fellow in the sports concussion lab. When I am not in the lab, I am usually with my family enjoying the four seasons of outdoor activities the Okanagan has to offer.

What is your research about?

I am investigating how we are better able to protect people from sustaining concussions through the development of advanced helmet-liner materials. The goal of my current Mitacs project working in conjunction with Helios Global Technologies (Kelowna BC), Imperial College (London UK) and UBC is to mitigate the forces transferred to the brain during contact-sports such as soccer and hockey. My specific aspect in this study is to investigate how the effects of an acute bout of soccer heading alter the brain’s ability to regulate its blood flow, with and without protective headgear.

What have you enjoyed the most about your research?

I have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to transfer my mechanistic knowledge of brain blood flow regulation into a real-world application that can help reduce the risk of sustaining a concussion. The implications of this partnership has the potential to have a profound impact on the safety of millions of contact-sport athletes not only in Canada, but across the globe.

What have you found most challenging about your research?

The most challenging aspect of this project has also been one of the most enjoyable. It has been difficult developing the most appropriate in vivo testing methods to tease out the subtle alterations resulting from soccer heading on brain function. However, overcoming this challenge has also been one of the most rewarding aspects of this investigation.

How has your research experience influenced your career path?

The Mitacs experience has opened up opportunities for me to be able to apply my academic knowledge and use it to help create real-world applications. The connections between myself and our industrial collaborators (Helios Global Technologies and Imperial College) has demonstrated there are other potential career trajectories outside of academia for people with graduate degrees.

How has your research impacted the world?

The findings from this project have the potential to reduce the risk of suffering from a traumatic brain injury while playing a contact-sport. By mitigating the forces transferred to the brain during head impacts, people could be less likely to suffer from the debilitating effects of a head injury, which could allow a new generation of athletes to pursue their sport of choice.

What do you predict will be the next big breakthrough in your field of research?

The next major breakthrough for the concussion research field will be the development of an objective marker that is able to aid in the diagnosis of, and track recovery from, a mild traumatic brain injury. There are currently several promising pathways being pursued including numerous blood biomarkers and various aspects of cerebrovascular physiology. This tool will help remove the subjective nature that is currently associated with concussion management.

Who supports your research?

The Mitacs research project investigating advanced headliner materials for mitigating force transmission to the brain during head impacts has been supported by Helios Global Technologies based in Kelowna, BC and with Imperial College based in London, England.

What motivates you to do research?

I have always been fascinated with understanding how the body and brain work the way they do. When UBC opened their Okanagan campus in Kelowna, BC in 2007 I decided to change my career from swim coaching to academics and relocated to Kelowna in 2008. Since moving to Kelowna, I have completed both my MSc and PhD degrees in cerebrovascular physiology and through my Mitacs experience, I have been able to translate my mechanistic knowledge of brain blood flow regulation and use it to create a real-world application that has the potential to affect millions of people across the globe.

Tell us about your 'Eureka' moment

During my MSc and PhD studies, I focused on understanding how the brain regulates its blood flow independent of the body. However, when I began to delve deeper into the literature it became apparent that many studies investigating this relationship had a major flaw in their approach, namely there was too much variability in their measures to accurately distinguish between chance occurrences and real changes. In my PhD, I determined the gold-standard for quantifying the relationship between body blood pressure and brain blood flow is the squat-stand maneuvers which is the method we are employing throughout this Mitacs investigation.

Mitacs

Mitacs is a national, not-for-profit organization that has designed and delivered research and training programs in Canada for 15 years. Working with 60 universities, more than 6,000 companies, and both federal and provincial governments, we build partnerships that support industrial and social innovation in Canada.


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