Richard Mah

Supervisor: Stephane Bourque

Project: Investigating the effects of iron deficiency during pregnancy on antioxidant gene regulation in the newborn


Edmonton, AB

Degree program:

Bachelor of Science with Specialization in Pharmacology

Why did you choose this program?

I have always been interested in science, and how curiosity within science can make large impacts to our world. This interest landed me the fortunate opportunity to do summer research in Grade 11 with Dr. Bourque, whom I've been working with for the past five years. His area of research within the department of pharmacology is unique as it also investigates how nutritional deficiencies such as iron deficiency impact pregnancy and health outcomes. I’ve been hooked ever since my high school experience.

What was it like to continue your rese

Although the pandemic posed challenges such as needing to distance within the lab and having virtual meetings, I have learned to be more resilient and adaptable to changes in safety protocols. I also feel extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to come into the office and conduct experiments (while still following regulations) when many other occupations still face major restrictions.

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

Learning new techniques within the laboratory such as unique specimen preparations or assays are always exciting! Additionally, being able to connect virtually with the laboratory team, and even occasionally see them within the lab has made the adaptation to the pandemic much more bearable than sitting on my computer, isolated at home.

What interested you in the summer studentship program?

I have conducted research in the Bourque Lab for the past five years, but this program is important since it allows me to connect with fellow students, researchers and mentors who all play an integral role in my educational experience. It's motivating to know that our research could benefit the lives of billions of women and children. Conducting research without the support of the studentship program would be less immersive and look much different than all of the resources I have access to now.

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

Without support from WCHRI, the Stollery Children's Hospital Foundation and the Alberta Women's Health Foundation, I would not have the opportunity to partake in this summer research experience. I am extremely grateful for their support and feel responsible for using it in the most productive way possible. I understand that research is expensive, and an opportunity that should not be taken for granted. This drives me to strive for excellence in my research.

Lay abstract:

Iron deficiency (ID) is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide, affecting about two billion people. Because pregnant women are most at risk (due to blood volume expansion and the demands of the growing fetus and placenta) ID may threaten the early and lifelong health of not only the mother but also newborns. Some risks associated with ID in the developing child include anemia, growth restriction and abnormal kidney development, which may, in turn, be associated with an increased risk of chronic heart and kidney disease in later life. Unfortunately, iron supplementation during pregnancy is often not effective, and these adverse pregnancy outcomes occur all too often.

How ID causes these abnormal growth effects in the developing fetus is largely unknown, which poses a significant health risk for a large proportion of the population. Our lab recently found that ID causes higher levels of oxidative stress, and affects the ability of the mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cell) to generate energy in some fetal organs, such as the kidney and heart which may alter its development and hence long-term function.

In the proposed studies, the goal is to further identify potential causes of the oxidative stress observed. Using a model of iron deficiency in pregnancy, we will study the genes that protect the cells against oxidative stress to determine if these are dysfunctional due to iron deficiency. Additionally, by looking at differences between males and females, we may gain insights into the differences between male and female susceptibility to stressors such as ID. The overall goal is to translate our findings and develop new therapeutic strategies to prevent the developmental abnormalities caused by ID in pregnancy.

With funding support from the Biomedical Global Health Research Network.