Award-winning researchers working to improve women’s health and well-being
July 25, 2018

Ovarian cancer patients and breast cancer survivors are among the women whose lives could be transformed by research being carried out by this year’s recipients of the Women’s Health Scholars Awards.

Ten distinguished Ontario university scholars have been chosen to receive the 2018-19 Women’s Health Scholars Awards, earning scholarships of up to $50,000 to continue their important research to improve the health and well-being of women. The annual awards are funded by the Ontario government and administered by the Council of Ontario Universities.

“It is inspiring to see the work these university scholars are doing and the difference it will make to the lives of women in Ontario and beyond,” said David Lindsay, President and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities. “Their research will, for example, examine ways to harness the body’s immune system to kill ovarian cancer tumours, help women with gestational diabetes avoid developing Type-2 diabetes, and contribute to improved services for mothers living with HIV.”

“This outstanding work reflects Ontario universities’ commitment to partnering to conduct innovative research on new treatments and better services, train the highly-skilled professionals that deliver high-quality care, and improve the health and well-being of the people of Ontario.”

Below are this year’s Ontario Women’s Health Scholars Awards recipients.

For more information on how the awards are administered, click here.


Postdoctoral

Esther Shoemaker
University of Ottawa

An increasing number of Canadian women living with HIV are having children as they receive effective treatment that prevents transmission of the virus to their infants. But Ontario studies have shown that infants born to mothers with HIV have poorer health outcomes than others, with little data to indicate why. Esther Shoemaker, a medical sociologist, is conducting three interrelated studies on the use and outcomes of maternity-care services of pregnant and birthing women with HIV. The first looks at the location of services and how pregnant and birthing women with HIV in Ontario use them; the second  is assessing the health outcomes of women with HIV following pregnancy and birth in Ontario; and the third study evaluates the characteristics of women living with HIV that predict poor maternal health outcomes. Linking different data sets, the project aims to identify the particular health-care needs of pregnant and birthing women with HIV and to create policies and resources to deliver better, more equitable care. Esther is a postdoctoral fellow at the Bruyère Research Institute, affiliated with the University of Ottawa, and the Institute of Clinical and Evaluative Sciences (ICES).

Ashley Untereiner
University of Toronto

Ashley Untereiner’s research aims to develop a simple diagnostic method, using a blood sample, that would help predict if pregnant women with gestational diabetes are likely to go on to develop Type-2 diabetes. She is also looking for metabolic clues into why gestational diabetes transitions into Type-2 diabetes − an occurrence in 20 to 50 per cent of pregnancies. The project will study the complex metabolic processes taking place in the two conditions, looking for the biomarkers that indicate the transition from one to the other. This may then lead to future research on predicting Type-2 diabetes in a broader population:  men and non-pregnant women. Ashley is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto’s School of Medicine.

Postdoctoral (Renewal)

Irene Vitoroulis
McMaster University

Irene Vitoroulis’ research focuses on understanding risks to mental health, and the factors that can protect against them, among adolescent immigrants and refugees. In particular, she is investigating the prevalence of depression and anxiety disorders among teenage girls from refugee and immigrant backgrounds, and the extent to which social stressors and family processes contribute to a higher risk of mental health issues. Depressive disorders are the leading cause of non-fatal burden of disease worldwide, with girls three times more likely to be affected than boys. Irene’s research aims to identify vulnerable sub-groups of refugee and immigrant girls who are at risk, and help lead to approaches tailored specifically to girls. It also examines the effects of social processes in schools, and how negative peer interactions (such as bullying) and positive experiences (e.g. support, safety) contribute to migrant youths’ psychosocial adjustment. Irene is a postdoctoral fellow at the Offord Centre for Child Studies in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences at McMaster University.

Doctoral

Stéphanie Gauvin
Queen’s University

Stéphanie Gauvin’s research aims to better understand the sexual health and well-being of women who experience chemically-induced menopause after undergoing treatment for breast cancer.  The project is intended to lead to educational materials for women and health-care professionals on the sexual changes that may occur from such treatments, and identify potential targets for intervention. Treatments for breast cancer can alter hormone balances and cause a wide array of side effects including menopausal-like symptoms known as chemically induced menopause. There is limited research on the sexual ramifications, but through a two-part study of women and their partners, Stéphanie hopes to bridge the knowledge gap, comparing sexual health among women experiencing chemically induced menopause, natural menopause, and pre-menopausal women. The research could have significant implications for the management and recovery process of breast cancer survivors. Stéphanie is a PhD student in the clinical psychology program at Queen’s University.

Sophie Poznanski
McMaster University

Sophie Poznanski’s project will study how ‘natural killer’(NK) cells in the body’s immune system could be deployed to overcome ovarian cancer tumours’ ability to suppress attacks by the body’s anti-cancer immune defenses, potentially leading to improved treatments for this deadly cancer.  Each year, around 25,000 North American women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and more than 50 per cent of them do not survive five years, largely due to the cancer’s ability to avoid detection until the late stages. Sophie’s research will examine ways of expanding the power of a patient’s own NK cells, including the use of antibody therapies, to overcome the cancer’s anti-immune properties. This could lead to improved outcomes for ovarian cancer patients and add new knowledge to the growing field of NK cell therapy. Sophie Poznanski is a PhD student in the Medical Sciences program at McMaster University.

Elvira Prusaczyk
Brock University

Elvira Prusaczyk’s research investigates whether consuming pornography leads women to view themselves as sexual objects (i.e., self-objectify) or express biases against their group. Although many women consume it, there is little research into the link between pornography and self-objectification or other prejudice-related outcomes. Self-objectification (routinely monitoring one’s body) has been shown to contribute to depression, eating disorders and sexual dysfunction, making research into its causes and processes sorely needed. Elvira’s goal is for her research to inform educators and counsellors, who may use it to create media literacy campaigns or inform in-patient sessions. She starts as a PhD student in Social/Personality Psychology at Brock University in September 2018.

Doctoral (Renewal)

Halina (Lin) Haag
Wilfrid Laurier University

Halina (Lin) Haag’s research focuses on women survivors of intimate partner violence that results in brain injury, exploring factors influencing mental health, return to work and social inclusion. As someone who has experienced traumatic brain injury, Lin uses her story as motivation for her research. Intimate partner violence is the primary cause of physical injury to Canadian women aged 15 to 44, while hits to the head, face and neck are the most common forms of violence leading to traumatic brain injury. Lin’s research explores the connection between traumatic brain injury, intimate partner violence and mental illness, in order to identify what supports women need, and to develop recommendations. Her research aims to improve the health and well-being of women who suffer brain injuries as a result of intimate partner violence. Lin is a PhD student in the Lyle S. Hallman Faculty of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Master’s

Maria C. Cusimano
University of Toronto

Women who have mutations in the genes BRCA1 or BRCA2 are 25 times more likely to get ovarian cancer than those who do not, and they are usually advised to undergo preventative removal of the ovaries. However, removal leads to early menopause and potential problems such as heart disease, dementia and osteoporosis later in life. Maria C. Cusimano is undertaking a study to measure the chances of developing heart disease, dementia, and osteoporosis after surgical removal of the ovaries in women with BRCA 1/2 mutations. If women with BRCA 1/2 mutations have a high chance of developing these problems after surgery, hormone replacement could be recommended, early prevention strategies implemented, and women monitored closely. The study will also help understand how menopause leads to other major diseases affecting women. Maria is a resident physician in obstetrics and gynecology and a graduate student in Clinical Epidemiology & Health Care Research at the Institute of Health Policy, Management, and Evaluation (IHPME) at the University of Toronto. 

Brianna Hunt
Wilfrid Laurier University

Brianna Hunt is researching the impact of discrimination on the mental health of Muslim women in Canada. In partnership with local organizations catering to Muslim women, using community workshops, focus groups and interviews, the project will explore the experiences of diverse groups of Muslim women and the link between discrimination and mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and feelings of isolation from social exclusion.  The findings will be shared in community workshops in the Waterloo Region and help create materials for use in social service delivery. The research aims to provide a meaningful contribution to the broader issue of mental health and well-being of Canadian women. Brianna is a Master’s student in the Community Psychology program at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Tanja Samardzic
University of Windsor

Tanja Samardzic’s research explores women’s experiences of ‘self-silencing’ in relationships with violent men. Young women are at particular risk for experiencing intimate partner violence. Because of external social pressure and gender norms, some women learn to ignore their own needs in maintaining romantic relationships − sometimes through self-silencing, the suppression of their thoughts, feelings, and opinions. Tanja plans to investigate self-silencing in women who have and have not experienced abuse, and explore its consequences on various relationship processes like reciprocal communication and sexual compliance (the willingness to engage in unwanted sexual activity). Tanja hopes her research will contribute to content for interventions and enhanced support offered to survivors of intimate partner abuse. Tanja is a Master’s candidate in the Applied Social Psychology program at the University of Windsor.