Richard Mah

Supervisor: Stephane Bourque

Project: Investigating the effects of maternal iron deficiency on macrophage populations in the developing kidney


Edmonton, AB

Degree program:

Bachelor of Science with Specialization in Pharmacology

Why did you choose the degree program you are in?

In junior high, a close friend suffered a drug overdose. His experience deeply affected me and my decision to pursue a degree that would help me raise awareness of the social and physical implications of drugs. My interest was piqued when I began summer research in high school, which drew me to my current program of pharmacology. Throughout my degree, I have developed a profound understanding of drugs and their mechanisms. I can situate myself within the world of modern drug technology, which has developed vastly over the past decade.

Was your studentship impacted by the pandemic?

Yes. Due to the pandemic and social distancing requirements, some opportunities to work in the lab with my colleagues to learn the techniques required for some experiments were limited. However, I was still lucky enough to partake in many of the experiments happening in the lab, whilst following social distancing requirements. 

My summer studentship project slightly changed this summer as I had more time to contribute to an upcoming publication that incorporated my work from my honors undergraduate pharmacology thesis! Being part of an upcoming publication is something I am largely grateful and excited about. It is rewarding to write up the paper, work with my colleagues and supervisors, and be a driving force of this publication that will make a difference in the health of women and children.

Did you have any interesting results?

Although the proposed experiments in kidney macrophages are still being optimized, I completed experiments that measured how iron deficiency affected various proteins and factors essential for kidney growth. We found that iron deficiency indeed causes changes in important growth and signalling factors such as retinoic acid receptors and beta-catenin.

We anticipated iron deficiency would impact some of these factors which may explain why kidney development is disturbed, but we're still trying to piece the whole story together! 

What interested you in the WCHRI Summer Studentship Program?

I have conducted research in the Bourque Lab for the past six 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 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 had 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. Additionally, I'm grateful to WCHRI for supporting me in multiple aspects, whether it is the opportunity to share my research at Research Day or connect with students and researchers alike.

Lay abstract:

Iron deficiency (ID) is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide, affecting about 2 billion people. Additionally, an astonishing 52 per cent of pregnant women in the developing world are affected by iron deficiency. Because pregnant women are most at risk, ID may threaten the early and lifelong health of both the mother and offspring. ID is associated with many risks, including anemia, growth restriction and impaired kidney development which may, in turn, be associated with an increased risk of chronic heart and kidney disease in later life. Our previous studies found that ID reduces the number of nephrons being formed (the functional unit of the kidney) during development which can drive long-term dysfunction. However, the mechanisms are not well understood.

Macrophages are a type of white blood cell and play an important role in kidney development by facilitating the turnover of new cells. This study aims to identify how ID affects the function of macrophages—a type of white blood cell—which are critical for proper kidney development and growth. Using a model of ID in pregnancy, we will study the different types of kidney macrophages. Additionally, by looking at differences in macrophages 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 obtain an improved understanding of how ID impacts the distribution of macrophage types and use this knowledge to develop new therapeutic strategies to prevent the developmental abnormalities caused by ID in pregnancy.