Janelle Chen

Supervisor: Sandra Davidge

Project: How maternal age impacts blood vessel function during pregnancy


Edmonton, AB

Degree program:

Bachelor of Science in Honours Physiology

Why did you choose this program?

Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I encountered a variety of health difficulties. As a young teenager, it frustrated me to lack understanding of why my health was encountering problems. Therefore, I began looking into physiology from a very young age. While the extent of my study was limited, I found the study of human body function and malfunction fascinating. Not only did I find explanations for my own health, I was also discovering a world of amazing physiological phenomena. One such area of physiology for which I developed a keen interest was reproductive physiology. By the time I entered university, I knew that I wanted to study, research and dedicate a career to reproductive physiology with a focus on maternal complications during pregnancy.

How was your studentship impacted by COVID-19?

The first two months of my studentship had to occur from home. As I could no longer be in the lab performing experiments and gathering data, I focused instead on doing related literature searches and becoming familiar with the background of my project. The silver lining of this situation was that I had this opportunity to better understand the research surrounding my project, which allowed me to be better prepared for re-entering the lab. Once I was able to re-enter the lab in July, it was a race against time to collect enough data for abstracts. Not only did we have many experiments to run, I had to first receive the proper training in order to work in the lab independently. While it is frustrating at times to be behind schedule, I know that many other researchers are faced with similar challenges.

How did you stay connected with your supervisor and lab members during the lockdown?

The Davidge Lab was exceptional in its ability to stay connected professionally and personally with all lab members. Each week we had a virtual lab meeting where everyone is updated or provides updates on the progress of our work. We also have weekly journal clubs, and each lab member is responsible for hosting at least one journal club. Once we got back into the lab we would meet multiple times daily to discuss plans, results and analysis. Apart from professional meetings, the Davidge Lab also had several socially distanced get togethers. We met at a local park, and despite being physically distant, we were socially connected! At one point, we even played spike ball with disposable gloves on!

What's been the best part of your experience so far?

The best part of my experience with the Davidge Lab has been the independence that I have gained as a student researcher. The training provided prepared me to research in a self-motivated manner. Everyday, I have the freedom to make my own lab schedule, decide which experiments I need to do and execute my plans. I can run experiments independently and analyze the results myself. At the same time, I always have the knowledge that the other members of the lab are open to answering my questions and providing any support needed. Whenever I run into frustrations or unforeseen difficulties with my research, there is also someone from the lab or from WCHRI to pitch in ideas and lend a hand. The aspects of collaboration and support have allowed me to feel confident as I become a capable and self-driven researcher.

What has the support from WCHRI, the Stollery Children's Hospital Foundation and the Alberta Women's Health Foundation meant to you?

WCHRI is a network of dedicated individuals who are clearly passionate about the research and their researchers. Even though I was only an undergraduate summer student, the WCHRI leaders always demonstrated interest in my research and provided encouragement through the process. In addition, WCHRI has connected me to other student researchers, even in these bizarre pandemic times! Collaboration is such an important part of research, and WCHRI acknowledges and encourages this in its researchers.

Lay abstract:

One of the most noticeable demographic trends across the world is that women are getting pregnant at an older age, also called advanced maternal age. Advanced maternal age is considered a pregnancy in women aged 35 years or older. One in every five live births in Canada is from a woman >35 years and this incidence is projected to rise in the next decades.

It is known that pregnancy in women of advanced age leads to an increased risk of complications, such as low birthweight, preeclampsia (high blood pressure in pregnancy), preterm birth and caesarean section. To maintain a healthy pregnancy, a variety of changes occurs to the mother's heart and blood vessels to provide oxygen and nutrition to the growing baby. Whether these changes are altered in women of advanced age during pregnancy is unknown. Research has shown that blood vessel function can be altered by the accumulation of damaging molecules, also called oxidative stress. Oxidative stress may affect key enzymes and hormones necessary for normal function of the blood vessels, thus influencing growth and development of the baby.

In the current study, we will use an animal model of advanced maternal age to study new mechanisms by which oxidative stress might be responsible for abnormal changes in the adaptations of the blood vessels to pregnancy. We will assess blood vessel function and measure the amount of oxidative stress in the blood vessels. These studies are important because, by understanding the process by which aging and oxidative stress affects blood vessel function during pregnancy, we may develop interventions to improve pregnancy outcomes in women of advanced maternal age in the future.