Young athletes 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 Ontario Women’s Health Scholars Awards.
Nine Ontario university scholars have received the 2019-20 Women’s Health Scholars Awards, earning scholarships of up to $50,000 to continue their research to improve the health and well-being of women.
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To learn about last year’s winners: Click Here
Rhea Ashley Hoskin’s research aims to demonstrate that violence and discrimination against women and members of the LGBTQ+ community may in part be driven by a phenomenon that has been overlooked: prejudice against femininity and feminine qualities.
While attitudes such as homophobia, transphobia and sexism have been widely studied as predictors of violence, Rhea’s project will look into the role of what is known as ‘femmephobia’ – the social devaluation and demotion of things and people that are deemed feminine. She argues that femmephobia is second nature in society, and passes almost unnoticed, making it important to carry out research aimed at understanding its role in violence and discrimination.
Her project involves two studies. The first will develop scales to measure femmephobic attitudes and experiences; the second will examine the prevalence of femmephobic attitudes and identify the groups of individuals who are most likely to be the target of such attitudes. Rhea, who is a feminist sociologist working in the departments of Gender Studies and Psychology at Queen’s University, hopes her research will help lead to interventions that will target femmephobia and mitigate its harms.
Katherine Halievski’s research aims to balance the lack of research into chronic pain in women by examining the role of a specific gene in the biological processes that cause pain in females.
Her project follows on the heels of previous research in which her team found fundamental differences in the biological mechanisms driving chronic pain in males and females. Given that most preclinical trials into pain have used a lot more males than females, and that most knowledge of pain mechanisms might not apply to women, Katherine aims to look for clues specific to female pain processes.
Her research is targeting a gene called ChAT, involved in transmitting neuronal signals, that she has discovered is reduced in the spinal cord of female mice compared to males in an injury model of pain. She will use gene-engineering techniques to eliminate ChAT from spinal cord pain neurons to see if this mimics an injury-induced sensitivity in females, and then reinstate the gene to see if it has the effect of preventing or reducing chronic pain.
Katherine hopes her research will not only show whether ChAT could play a role in treating chronic pain in women, but also close the knowledge gap on sex differences in this field of medicine and promote the inclusion of both sexes in future preclinical pain studies. Katherine, who received her PhD in Neuroscience at Michigan State University, is a postdoctoral fellow at The Hospital for Sick Children.
Alexandra Harriss is undertaking the largest and most comprehensive study assessing repetitive head injury in female adolescents, in a project that will track the incidence of head impacts in female soccer players.
While there is a growing body of evidence that concussions and other head injuries can lead to later cognitive harm, including Alzheimer’s Disease and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), most research has focused on male American football players, with little research done into how these injuries affect women or adolescents.
However, females have a higher rate of head injury compared to males, and report more severe and prolonged symptoms affecting mental and physical well-being – Alexandra, herself an accomplished soccer player, hopes her research will address this knowledge gap.
Her initial work indicates that female teenagers frequently experience head impacts during soccer games, many of them comparable to those in American football. Her project will fit a group of players with microsensors during games and practices to determine head impact magnitudes that occur from heading the ball as well as from contact with other players. Electroencephalogram tests will also measure cognitive functioning at various time points during the soccer season – the start, mid-season measures and post-season.
The research results are expected to provide important data to develop criteria to reduce the risk of brain injury that results from repeated head impacts, including ways to identify risks for specific players. Alexandra, who captained the University of Guelph varsity women’s soccer team, is a doctoral candidate at Western University in the combined MPT/PhD program.
Therese Kenny’s research project aims to improve outcomes for women with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa by better understanding different stages of their recovery process.
Anorexia, characterized by inadequate food intake and fear of weight gain, affects up to 2 per cent of women in Ontario and has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. Therese aims to add clarity and more experience-based insight to how recovery following an anorexia diagnosis is categorized and understood.
In a commonly used model, individuals are deemed “fully recovered” if they report a healthy body weight, no eating disorder (ED) symptoms such as binge eating or purging, and limited ED thoughts (for example, fear of weight gain). If they have a healthy weight and no ED symptoms, but still have significant ED thoughts, they are considered “partially recovered”. Therese’s research aims to examine whether these arbitrary and arguably un-nuanced categories sufficiently reflect real-life experiences of recovery from anorexia.
Therese’s first study will interview people with a history of anorexia, asking about their recovery and what factors helped or hindered it. These results will be used to form a questionnaire for the second study, which will be given to individuals with past, present, or no history of anorexia.
Together, these studies aim to improve the current understanding of recovery from anorexia nervosa and to identify potential new treatment options to support individuals’ transition from illness to wellness. Therese is a PhD student in the Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology Program at the University of Guelph.
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 a significant 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 candidate in the Lyle S. Hallman Faculty of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier 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.
Elvira Prusaczyk’s research focuses on investigating the effects of pornography among women. Due to sexually-objectifying images, many women begin to view themselves as sexual objects and habitually monitor their bodies (i.e., self-objectification). This form of self-surveillance leads women to feel ashamed and hyper-vigilant about their physical appearance, ultimately contributing to the development of health issues such as disordered eating, depression, and sexual dysfunction.
Although many women consume pornography, little research has examined whether pornography triggers self-objectification and other health-related outcomes. In this vein, Elvira’s research addresses the gap. Moreover, given that self-objectification has been found to thwart women’s social activism, Elvira seeks to understand how self-objectification and other biases in response to pornography can maintain gender inequality. In this regard, she is investigating how pornographic material simultaneously harms women’s mental health and contributes to the maintenance of sexism.
Ultimately, results from her research may help educators and counselors to design media literacy campaigns or personal-level interventions. Elvira is a PhD student in Social/Personality Psychology at Brock University.
Andrea Evans is researching the quality of perinatal care provided to refugees, with the goal of improving the outcomes for pregnant refugee women and their newborns.
Canada has an internationally-acclaimed program of refugee settlement, and in 2015-2016 alone, it welcomed some 40,000 Syrian refugees. However, health care provisions for refugees differs between the different models for refugee resettlement.
Andrea’s research will focus, for example, on how pregnant refugees in the government sponsored refugee program are cared for – given they receive essential service assistance including help navigating the healthcare system – compared to the refugees who are sponsored by private citizens or organizations. Using extensive health-care databases, she will study the perinatal care provided across Ontario and between the resettlement models.
Andrea, who is a Master’s student in Health Services Research at the Institute for Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the University of Toronto, hopes her findings can be translated into improved health for women at the national and international level.
Theresa Tam is researching how a class of proteins called neurotrophins regulate chronic pain in men and women.
Although chronic pain is highly prevalent in women, there is a bias towards studying males in preclinical trials and this may factor into why many pain medications work poorly for women. Theresa is building on work carried out at her lab showing that the BDNF neurotrophin is strongly involved in pain hypersensitivity in males but not in females.
Having found that the biological mechanisms driving pain downstream of BDNF are similar in both sexes, Theresa is examining whether there are other neurotrophins that could be specifically responsible for pain signalling in females.
Theresa hopes that better understanding how female pain signals differ from males will help identify sex-specific proteins that could be therapeutic targets for the treatment of chronic pain in women. She is a Master’s student in the Department of Physiology at the University of Toronto.