Restoring Breath to the Breathless

Michelle Schaeffer is currently a Post-doctoral fellow in the Cardiopulmonary Exercise Physiology Lab. Her research is focused on the mechanisms of dyspnea and exercise intolerance in patients with interstitial lung disease and the use of hyperoxia as in intervention during an exercise rehabilitation program.

Exercise is a huge part of my life, and I feel fortunate to have built my lifestyle and professional career around something that I am so passionate about. While competing on the varsity rowing team as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, I often wondered what explained the large variability in peak performance among athletes. I pursued academic courses to help me understand exercise physiology, but I often noticed trends or had questions for which I could not find satisfactory answers. These experiences led me to pursue a career in research.

I completed my master’s degree at McGill University where I examined sex differences in activity-related breathlessness in young, healthy adults. I then pursued a PhD here at the University of British Columbia with Dr. Jordan Guenette where I continued studying the symptom of breathlessness but in a clinical population. For my thesis project, I examined the physiological underpinnings of breathlessness in patients with a highly morbid condition called fibrotic interstitial lung disease. I also investigated the effects of administering high levels of oxygen on breathlessness in these patients during a single exercise session on a stationary bike in the laboratory. The improvements in symptoms and performance that we observed were profound and are the premise of a large clinical trial that is now up and running at seven different sites across Canada. With this trial, which is now the focus of my post-doctoral work, we hope to provide the data needed to implement guidelines around the provision of supplemental oxygen for patients with interstitial lung disease during pulmonary rehabilitation programs. This may serve to improve the outcomes of these patients from traditional rehabilitation programs and furthermore, improve their quality of life. Our work was recently highlighted by the British Columbia Lung Association. You can read about the personal experience of one of our participants as well as watch a short video documenting our research here:

Photo taken by Nick Wilson (

Outside of the laboratory, I am a semi-professional road cyclist racing for a Vancouver-based team, InstaFund La Prima. So far this season, I have had the opportunity to travel to Arizona, California, and Arkansas to compete at some of the top American Road Calendar and USA Pro Road Tour events. I am also really looking forward to lining up again at BC Superweek here in Vancouver this July. Balancing the demands of my racing and my research is challenging, but I am doing my best to practice what I preach. I hope that my work continues to help others to engage in physical activity in a way that is also meaningful and beneficial to each of them.