A Community for the Future
College campuses are rarely held out as exemplars of healthy habits and high quality of life. Students, many of whom are living away from home for the first time, struggle to navigate new social situations and increased independence while balancing academic responsibilities, extracurricular activities, work, and personal life. To cope, many skimp on sleep, overindulge in alcohol, or isolate themselves.
Recent research on college students and mental health indicates that three out of 10 students grappled with depression in the last two weeks, and more than one in four experience anxiety. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that one in four US undergraduates experience academic issues as a result of drinking. Approximately 60 percent of university students suffer from poor sleep quality, and at least 25 percent are estimated to be at risk of at least one sleep disorder.
University instructors face challenges as well. Academics are at a higher risk of developing mental health problems than those in many other professions, mainly due to heavy workloads, the competitive tenure-track environment, and the struggle to balance work with home life.
“There’s a big role communities can play in the health of their residents. Chronic diseases don’t occur in isolation, but rather are closely affiliated with an individual’s culture, behavior, and environment.”
At Michigan Tech, we see maintaining a healthy sense of well-being as a self-fulfilling endeavor. A strong community increases an individual’s quality of life, and healthy people foster a nourishing community. Research shows that students do best—both in their studies and later in their careers—when they feel a sense of belonging on their college campuses. Faculty and staff thrive in their positions when they feel supported and have a sense of purpose.
Integrating well-being into our curriculum teaches healthy habits and creates a feeling of connection in students. Initiatives that provide mentoring and professional development for faculty and staff keep them excited about their careers and intellectual endeavors.
Many of those endeavors involve research to improve the human condition. NIH funding for health research on campus has doubled in just the last five years. Researchers are exploring diverse solutions for some of the greatest challenges to health and well-being, including diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, lack of sleep, and anxiety.
And unlike many other universities, our health research labs involve students in meaningful ways. In Megan Frost’s polymeric biomaterials lab, for instance, undergraduate and graduate students alike have a chance to learn about the world of biomedical engineering research. Frost, associate professor of biomedical engineering, says her approach to hiring student researchers is to open the door to anyone who wants to learn.
Engaged mentors encourage engaged learners. For students, exploring how to do research builds belonging as well as marketable skills. For faculty and staff, research that matters in people’s daily lives is filled with purpose. For everyone, the goal is shared enthusiasm, rigor, and well-being.
Asleep in the Lab
Like death and taxes, another certainty for most Americans is lack of sleep. But what does sleep loss do to our bodies? What happens when we factor sex differences or alcohol into the mix?
The Michigan Tech Sleep Research Laboratory aims to answer those questions by combining sleep analysis technologies to provide a window into the effects of sleep on people in different stages of life.
The two-bed sleep facility has a core staff of two faculty researchers, a sleep physician, a registered nurse who is also a certified sleep technician, a lead doctoral student researcher, as well as graduate and undergraduate students.
Studies at the facility hinge on research into the effects of sleep on cardiovascular health, contributing to the expanding field of sleep research.
Researchers use various technologies in novel combinations to better understand the impact of things like alcohol, sleep deprivation, and insomnia on blood pressure. They’re finding a complex relationship between sleep and blood pressure control, and epidemiological evidence that the two are strongly coupled.”
The sleep research team gathers vast datasets collected during a night of sleep and evaluates them with advanced analytics to answer questions that were never possible before. They characterize the information based on what’s happening during different stages of sleep, based on the physiological differences between men and women, and on whether insomnia is a factor, to help guide therapeutic strategies and interventions.
Women’s hearts are most vulnerable following menopause. A study recently completed in the sleep research lab notes that women tend to be “cardio-protected” in early life compared to men, but that women lose such protections when their hormonal levels change during menopause, which seems to accelerate other risk factors. Population-based data suggests certain cardiovascular diseases like hypertension are also more strongly associated with short sleep in women than they are in men. Specifically, the sympathetic nervous system, the body’s fight-or-flight mode, reacts more strongly to sleep deprivation in women.
Sleep and heart health is impacted earlier in life, too. College students are chronically sleep deprived, and what sleep they do get is often low quality. Combined with the stresses of school, unhealthy diet, or drinking choices, the consequences can be life altering.
“We talk about exercise and eating right, but we also need to focus on how important sleep is,” says Anne Tikkanen, registered nurse and the lab’s lead sleep technician. “It’s like bragging about how many steps you walked in a day. We need to switch the focus to telling people how much sleep we got, not how little.”
Whether it’s a full night’s rest or a good nap, the Sleep Lab team wants everyone to wake up to the need for good sleep.
H-STEM: Where Engineering and Health Technologies Meet
In late 2018, the Michigan Legislature granted planning authorization for the H-STEM Engineering and Health Technologies Complex (H-STEM Complex). A $44.7 million capital outlay project, the H-STEM Complex will support Michigan Tech’s integrated educational programs that apply engineering and science to improve the human condition.
The H-STEM Complex will comprise newly constructed shared and flexible lab spaces, co-located with renovated classrooms and learning spaces in Michigan Tech’s Chemical Sciences and Engineering Building. The project request included a proposed $29.7 million in State support, with $15 million in matching funds.
“As the Upper Peninsula’s major research university, Michigan Tech’s faculty and staff recently identified quality of life and health outcomes as a major component of our five-year growth plan,” says Michigan Tech President Richard Koubek. “Now, thanks to the support of our state leaders, the H-STEM Complex will accelerate our efforts to create technological solutions to enhance health and quality of life, not only for our local communities, but for the entire state.”