The Extreme Environments Laboratory, DSES Television Appearances

Written by Professor Mike Tipton


Times have changed. Twenty five years ago academics who worked with the media tended to be ostracised by the academic community, now they are embraced; with folk like Professor Brian Cox becoming “personalities”. This has occurred with the realisation that the media is a direct route to inform and engage the public and, hopefully, influence youngsters to follow academic, in our case scientific, careers.


In the Extreme Environments Laboratory (EEL) of DSES, mostly because of our excellent facilities, photogenic staff and subject area expertise, we get a lot of media enquiries each year; over 40 in 2016. Included in these are about a dozen requests to film in EEL. We try to filter these by determining 1. Is the programme going to inform and increase the awareness and safety of the public? 2. Is the programme going to enhance the profile and reputation of the University? As a result of these questions we have refused a programme provisionally entitled “Miracles in Medicine”, we also refused “Top Gear” who wanted to see if one of the presenters froze sooner than a BMW!


The most recent programme to be broadcast that was filmed in EEL was Channel 4's “Staying Healthy: A Drs Guide” with Dr Pixie McKenna. Although broadcast recently, they filmed in EEL several months ago. The filming day follows the same pattern each time, early start and late finish, lots of repetition and about one hour of filming per minute of broadcast time! However, the benefit is that you will have the opportunity to speak and demonstrate to 2-3 million people in one go; that’s a lot of lectures! In the show we demonstrate and talk about “cold shock”, which we have researched for many years and which is the primary cause of death on immersion in cold water. We immersed three boxers in 12 °C water, making sure we were well out of arms reach! It is young men who make up the largest group in the drowning statistics and who are most resistant to safety messages. The boxers struggled to hold their breath and had a big cardiac response. We explained the dangers of cold shock and how to reduce these problems whilst still enjoying the water. Job done, message broadcast and hopefully received by a few at least.


In the UK there is an immersion-related death, on average, every 20 hours. For each death there are many more who suffer life-long morbidity. If programmes such as the most recent reduce these desperate statistics then we will have achieved one of our ongoing aims. Over the last thirty years we have seen the number of immersion deaths in the UK almost halved, from about 750 to about 400, this is still too many.


The UK National Drowning Prevention Strategy aims to “reduce accidental drowning fatalities in the UK by 50% by 2026, and reduce risk amongst the highest risk populations, groups and communities”. This year, as in previous years, we and our work will support the RNLI’s “Respect the Water Campaign”. This year’s campaign will be launched on the 25th May and will focus on how to stay alive during the first minutes of immersion; so the 5 minute film made in EEL, and broadcast in the programme with Dr Pixie McKenna, will provide an excellent accompaniment to that theme, and to that laudable aim.


Watch Mike's segment with the EEL from "Staying Healthy: A Dr's Guide" here at 32 minutes into the programme:

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