Lessons from climbing the highest mountains

Climbing the world’s highest mountains may seem worlds away from a lab, but not for cardiologist Dr Nikki Bart.

The UNSW lecturer, cardiologist at St Vincent’s Hospital, and heart researcher at Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute is not just a leading scientist. Bart is also a world record-breaking mountaineer.

With her mother, the duo became the first mother-daughter team to climb Mount Everest. When they reached the top, they also became the first mother-daughter team to finish climbing the Seven Summits: the highest mountains on each continent.

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Dr Nikki Bart receiving her Fulbright Future Scholarship from Minister for Education, Dan Tehan. Credit: Fulbright Australia.

Now, Bart and her mother are teaming up again to complete the Volcanic Seven Summits: the highest volcanoes on each continent.

“I just love being outside. I’m so grateful for this planet that we live in,” says Bart, who last year climbed the first volcano on the list, Mt Sidley in Antarctica. This volcano has been climbed by fewer than 50 people.

“The more opportunity we have to get out and explore, the more we’re going to want to protect it and look after it for the future generations.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic Bart has turned her attention to being part of a team treating COVID-19 cardiology complications in Australia.

Mountaineering and medicine: an unlikely duo

Bart’s Everest climb during her final year of study sparked a curiosity for how the body responds to extreme situations, fuelling her passion for the unlikely duo.

“I find my mountaineering and medicine to be really complementary. Mountaineering gives you the opportunity to challenge yourself and think outside the box – this experience helps me think laterally in the lab.”

After her Mount Everest climb in her final year of studies, Bart followed this curiosity to the University of Oxford where she completed her PhD on the effect of hypoxia – a condition where the body is deprived of oxygen supply – on the heart and lungs, after being awarded the Sir John Monash scholarship.

Bart says that her experiences at high altitude have helped her better empathise with her patients.

“At 8000m, the body goes through similar processes to an intensive care patient,” she says.

“While I don’t know what it’s like to be a heart patient, this does help me get a little closer to understanding.”

Aiming high

When asked how she tackles these massive feats, Bart says it comes down to the age-old adage: take it one step at a time.

“It may be cliché, but when you’re above 8000 metres, one step at a time truly becomes important – it may take you eight to 10 breaths to recover from that one step.”

Breaking a goal into small, achievable moments is a mountaineering lesson that Bart has applied to her research and medical practice. As a lecturer, she encourages students to do the same.

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Nikki and her mother became the first mother-daughter team to climb Mount Everest. Credit: skaman306/Getty Images

“It’s easy to feel completely overwhelmed by what’s ahead of you as a first-year student. Certainly, I was.

“If you have the bigger goal of finishing your first year, and then finishing your second year, it all becomes very manageable.”

“I am so proud of the students that I see going through today – their generation hopefully holds a lot more answers for our patients.”

She also encourages students to challenge themselves and aim high.

“Don’t let fear stop you – I’m still afraid, but it’s a matter of acknowledging it.”

“The opportunity to go overseas and study abroad can really open your horizons.”

Bart was recently awarded a Fullbright Scholarship, which provides Australian researchers the opportunity to work for a short period of time in the United States. The scholarships are a prestigious award to exchange experience and ideas and increase international collaboration.

Bart’s placement, which was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will take her to Harvard Medical School and deepen connections with researchers there.

She’s also excited by the future of heart research – particularly the area of cardiac genetics.

“I think that we’re very much on this cusp of a genetics and genomics revolution. We’re moving closer to treating people according to their individual makeup rather than just by their condition.”

This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.

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