Alex Kasak ’09 discovers adventure – and a career – in exercise physiology
sits in a coffee shop across the street from Saint Mary’s Hospital in Rochester,
taking a mid-afternoon break from his work as a research assistant in the Department of Physiology
and Biomedical Engineering at Mayo Clinic.
He starts describing his twenty-fifth birthday, celebrated just a couple of weeks ago. Nothing special,
he says. The usual office affair. A cake, maybe a little lumpy. Candles to wish upon and blow out.
The traditional strains of “Happy Birthday to You.”
Kasak seems unfazed that the party took place at a base camp on the approach to Mt. Everest, a world
away from his hometown of Austin, Minnesota. That he was perched on a 400-foot-thick slab of ice. That
Sherpa porters baked the cake. That, in the rarified air of 17,600 feet, summoning the breath to blow out
candles took a little extra effort. That the chorus serenading him included his fellow members of the Mayo
Everest Research Team and a group of climbers preparing to summit the world’s highest peak.
Although he turned a year older on the slopes of Everest, Kasak was the youngest member of the Mayo
team. Five other researchers in Kasak’s lab group made the month-long trek to the Himalayas, along with a
contingent of scientists, expedition specialists, reporters, photographers, and nine climbers backed by the
National Geographic Society and outfitter The North Face.
The goal, according to Kasak, was to conduct “every physiological test you could imagine” to measure the
human body’s responses to extreme altitudes and conditions. The Mayo team is using the data it collected
on Everest to learn not only how the body adapts to high altitude, but also to understand the physiology of
Many of the symptoms observed at altitude – back-flow between heart chambers, fluid accumulation in the
lungs, muscular wasting – are the same as seen with cardiac disease,” says Kasak, a graduate of the exercise
science program at Winona State University.
A focus of the project, led by Mayo researcher Dr. Bruce Johnson, is how the lungs handle fluid
changes. That’s commonly the problem that forces climbers down from the mountain, and patients with heart
disease into the hospital.
Kasak and the Mayo Everest Research Team spent months preparing for the trip, which included performing
baseline physiological testing on the climbers and control groups, and selecting, optimizing, and packing
about 1,500 pounds of testing equipment.
Climbing to the
Alex Kasak at his
Mayo Clinic physiology lab.