Medicine and mountaineering: the unlikely combo for heart researcher Nikki Bart

World record-breaker Dr Nikki Bart shares lessons learnt on the world's highest mountains. 

Nikki Bart with oxygen mask

At 8000m, the body goes through similar processes to an intensive care patient. Dr Nikki Bart - pictured here near camp three on Mt Everest - uses her mountaineering experience to help her better empathise with her patients.

Dr Nicole (Nikki) Bart is just as comfortable with an ECG machine as she is with an ice axe.

The UNSW Sydney student turned lecturer – who was awarded a prestigious Fulbright Future Scholarship this year – is a celebrated cardiologist at St Vincent's Hospital, heart researcher at Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, and conjoint lecturer at UNSW Medicine.

Bart is also a world record-breaking mountaineer who, with her mother, was 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. She was in her final year as a medicine student at UNSW at the time.

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.”

Bart's Fulbright Scholarship has been temporarily put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though she was due to be on a plane last week, Bart has put her medical focus towards being part of a team treating COVID-19 cardiology complications in Australia.

Mountaineering and medicine: an unlikely duo

Dr Nikki Bart

As part of her Fulbright Future Scholarship, Nikki Bart will travel to the Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School, where she will study cardiac genetics.

Bart's Everest climb during her final year of study sparked a curiosity for how the body responds to extreme situations.

She 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 prestigious Sir John Monash scholarship.

Now, she’s 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.”

As part of her Fulbright Future Scholarship, Bart will travel to the Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School, where she will study cardiac genetics.

Mountaineering is partly to thank for Bart's discipline and passion for medicine.

“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.”

Bart's experiences at high altitude have also 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

Nikki Bart receiving her Fulbright Future Scholarship

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

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 meters, 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 practise. She encourages students to do the same.

“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.”

Teaching new medical students is a highlight of Bart's work.

“I'm very proud to be a lecturer for UNSW,” she says. “I had an incredible education here and love the opportunity to pay some of that forward.

“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.

“I hope to see many more Sir John Monash and Fulbright Scholars from UNSW medical students. The opportunity to go overseas and study abroad can really open your horizons.”

As for her own horizons, Bart is looking forward to starting her Fulbright research at Harvard Medical School and deepening connections with international collaborators.