Phil Carvil, PhD
MedTech Cluster Development Manager at STFC, and all-round fitness and Space fanatic!
My name is Phil Carvil and I recently completed my PhD at King’s College London, undertaking a technical evaluation of the European Space Agency’s SkinSuit, as part of their Networking/Partnering program, in which I investigated how the spine is affected by the axial loading properties of the suit. But how I personally arrived at this point, and in this career, is a little different.
My father got me interested in space science through astronomy and science fiction, while my mother aroused my curiosity about medicine through her work as an intensive care nurse. This sparked my initial interest in the fields of space exploration and human physiology. At school I loved science but hated P.E. as I had no confidence in this area and no real understanding of why exercise was good for me. Nonetheless, while at college a friend took me to the gym (nearly kicking and screaming) and it was from that moment on that I started to take part in fitness classes and group exercise, and began to become interested in fitness.
Around this time, I was deciding where to do my bachelors degree, which I had planned on doing in astrophysics, however, I was becoming more and more interested in what was happening to my body through exercise and why. What were the mechanisms for the benefit of exercise? How was it working? Did I need to do more/less? These questions drove my decision to undertake an applied BSc in Exercise and Health Science at the University of Chichester.
I loved the course so much I went on to do a Masters degree in Sport and Exercise Physiology. I was fascinated with learning how the various physiological systems, heart, lungs, bones, muscles, psychology, all change in response to exercise stimulus. But what began to steer my path more towards space was finding out how extreme environments change our body, how it responds to alterations in temperature, atmosphere and, ultimately, gravity.
To apply my skill-sets further I became a trainer, health mentor and instructor for Nuffield Health. Here I was able to train and work with a large variety of people, all with different needs and goals. It was immensely rewarding and I still teach classes to this day, however that curiosity was still in my mind, what happens to the human body in the most extreme environment – space? Around this time, I noticed that a new course (MSc) in Space Physiology had started at King’s College London, and it took me all of 10 seconds to pick up the phone and ask if there were places available. It was not long after this that while on my way to the course induction, I met in the elevator someone who was to become one of my best friends, Julia, who strangely enough had a similar journey to me for arriving in a space-related career.
Over the period of the course we heard from so many leading experts in their field about how the body works and changes, both on Earth and in Space. The MSc course is supported by the Space Medicine Office of the European Astronaut Centre at the European Space Agency (ESA), which provided us with a rich array of experts, contacts and opportunities. And in fact, the opportunity that led both Julia and myself to our PhDs was our Master’s degree dissertation focused on the Gravity Loading Countermeasure SkinSuit. (GLCS). This was a newly designed suit by James Waldie and Dava Newman from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the suit sought to ‘reload’ the body through staged axial loading from shoulders to feet. ESA sought to understand if this technology could be suitable for use as an astronaut countermeasure. The opportunity arose for us to apply our skill-sets in exercise physiology to answer the question of how this suit affected the physiological response to exercise. Was it comfortable to wear? How much did it load the body? Was it thermally tolerable? These are important questions to be considered, especially when you are considering asking someone to wear this suit for potentially long periods of time.
It was this journey (supported along the way by some incredible mentors, friends and family) that led me to the successful completion of my PhD and where I am today, together with my key interests in fitness – why the body changes with exercise and a curiosity for the extreme environment of space.
For anyone interested, details of the King's College London Space Physiology & Health MSc can be found using this LINK. It's a one-year full-time degree course where you mix with like-minded people interested in Space, and have the opportunity to meet international experts who research and work with space agencies, like ESA and NASA, and you also have visits to RAF and Space Agency (ESA & DLR) facilities.