September 24, 2021

Women’s health research spotlight: Craig Steinback

Craig Steinbeck

Photo: William Au

As an exercise physiologist in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation, Craig Steinback researches blood pressure-related illnesses during pregnancy. High blood pressure in pregnant women—gestational hypertension—affects three in 50 pregnancies and can lead to several illnesses such as kidney dysfunction and most notably, preeclampsia. With support from the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation, Steinback is investigating the monumental changes undertaken by a women’s cardiovascular system during pregnancy and why, in hypertensive pregnancies, blood vessels don’t relax like they do in healthy pregnancies.

What does your program of research examine?

I’m interested in how the body communicates with blood vessels and regulates blood pressure and how blood flow is controlled. I look at the autonomic nervous system—which regulates involuntary processes like heart rate, digestion and blood pressureand the cardiovascular system in women who are pregnant and have issues with and around blood pressure. Pregnancy-related complications like preeclampsia and gestational hypertension may influence the development of future cardiovascular disease, not only in the mother but also in the child. By better understanding the mechanisms involved in the sympathetic nervous system—the body’s “fight-or-flight” response—activation and regulation may lead to preventative strategies to improve pregnancy outcomes and mitigate chronic disease risk.

How did you get into your field of research?

I got into the area of studying pregnancy back in grad school. My girlfriend, now wife, Margie Davenport, was studying pregnancy. We started discussing some of the data sets she was working on and I realized that my field of interest and expertise, at that time, overlapped with some of that data. We decided to do a side project together which introduced me to pregnancy as a life state. From that point forward, my interest in pregnancy continued to grow and my expertise developed. 

Why do you think it’s important to invest in pregnancy and women’s health research?

Everybody is the result of a successful pregnancy. It is such a critical life stage that we’re all affected by as health trajectories for the offspring are being set. However, pregnancy is a large vulnerability where many complications or conditions can develop that have acute health implications for both mother and baby. I think that if you start to understand pregnancy, which is understudied and misunderstood in a lot of contexts, you can start to really impact health and well-being at a population level. 

What do you like most about what you do?

From a physiology perspective, the way a woman’s body adapts during pregnancy is incredible and we don’t see this anywhere else in the physiological domain. So just that in and of itself is super interesting. Furthermore, women who are pregnant are understudied, so the work I am doing is incredibly novel. This area is ripe for discovery and further understanding, it’s research that is needed and has immediate relevant clinical importance.  

What do you consider your most significant contribution?

My team is one of two research programs in the world that studies how the nervous system controls blood vessels and in turn blood pressure in pregnancy. We have made significant contributions to the field by identifying novel ways that the nervous system is activated and controlled during pregnancy and linking how this influences the cardiovascular system. 

We are actually working in a unique area and we are trying to push discoveries that may help understand how to prevent and or treat high blood pressure during pregnancy. This area is incredibly important but there is a clear lack and limit of research.

You’re a women’s health research ambassador for WCHRI and the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation. What does this mean to you?

First and foremost, raising awareness around the fact that women, in general, are understudied and under included in research. Additionally, pregnancy has long been excluded from research studies and our understanding is incredibly lacking—especially compared to non-pregnant women and men. There is still a lot of work to do and research is a means of creating better health trajectories for both women and their children. It’s important for our community to be aware of that importance and to advocate for better representations for women in research studies.