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Meet: John B. West

Principal Investigator
Sleep and Respiration in Microgravity

photo of john west

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 me.

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.

Personal Information

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 a dog.

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.


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