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Behind the Science with Bonnie Lee

Authors: Arrthy Thayaparan and Alex Lukey (Blog Coordinators) Interviewing: Bonnie Lee, PhD Student, UBC 

At the Women’s Health Research Cluster, we strive to close the gaps in communication and knowledge between the public and scientific community. As such, our newest blog series, Behind the Science, will take a sneak peek into the world of science through a series of interviews with some amazing women’s health researchers. We hope that this series will spark interest in the general public and young students by understanding the journeys of these researchers

So we’re starting off with a BANG and introducing our very first interviewee! She is a future leader in the study of women’s health and a beloved colleague of the WHRC team. As a graduate neuroscience researcher at UBC, her work primarily looks at the impacts of motherhood and Alzheimer’s on cognition and the ageing brain. 

If that didn’t make any sense to you, then not to worry! The following interview will simplify the research, whilst also breaking down misconceptions of the research field. Without furtherado, it is our pleasure to introduce Bonnie Lee...

How did you become interested in women’s health research?

So I guess I first became interested in women's health research when, in my undergrad, I realized that none of my courses really talked about sex differences. Like how different phenomena that we're studying may be different, or even the same in males or females. It's kind of been ignored or glossed over.

During undergrad, I was working on a research project that looked at sex differences in the relationship between stress and neurogenesis. That's kind of how I stumbled into the world of sex differences. Then in my fourth year, I took a course with Dr. Liisa Galea on neuroplasticity. She brought up a lot of interesting ideas about sex differences and women's health, which really opened my mind and got me fascinated about women’s health research.

Then, of course, later on, being part of Liisa’s lab as a grad student even furthered my interest as I learned more about the intricacies and nuances of women’s health research.

Why do you think we need to focus on women’s health?

Well, I think just the woman's lifespan is so interesting. From the menstrual cycle to pregnancy and motherhood to menopause -- there is so much we have yet to learn about these life events. Even besides that, so many diseases are more prevalent or more severe in females. There’s so much we don't know about those topics. 

We all know someone who gave birth -- like your mom, for example. So the fact that we don't know much about [women’s health], it's just crazy. Speaking of diseases that are more prevalent in females, my research is focused on Alzheimer’s disease. It is known that females have a greater lifetime risk of Alzheimer’s disease, but more intriguing to me is the fact that pregnancy and motherhood play an interesting role in the manifestation of the disease -- with earlier onset, more severe pathology in the brain, and so on, in women with previous reproductive experience. It makes me wonder, why is that? And I think it's not just about women's health, right? The fact that we are able to learn something about why it's more prevalent in females will tell us more about the disease in general. We'll know more about different treatment options. So it's not just going to benefit women, it's going to benefit everyone, including men.

How did you decide to research Alzheimer’s, like in the scope of all possible diseases? 

I was always interested in Alzheimer's disease. A little personal background, I used to volunteer in a senior home where I played piano for them every weekend. I became really close to a senior who had Alzheimer's disease. I guess that kind of put a seed in my brain and made me want to learn more about the disease.

I think a lot of people can relate because it is a really prevalent disease -- many have family members or friends who might have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's or experienced taking care of someone with Alzheimer's disease. When I realized all the sex differences and long-term effects of pregnancy and motherhood in relation to Alzheimer’s disease, I think that’s when I really felt like this is something I want to dive deeper into and try to figure out why.

So, what drew you to neuroscience and to study the impacts on motherhood, especially?

So this goes all the way back to first year. In my first year, we had something called Imagine Day at UBC. My leader was actually a neuroscience major. I never knew that you could major in neuroscience at UBC! When I first got in, I thought “Okay, I'm going to be in science, I'm going to learn either chemistry or biology or physics.”  I was actually interested in psychology, too, though, in high school. I always wanted to learn more about the brain so after finding out there's a major for that, it was no brainer for me [pun intended]. So I did my undergrad in neuroscience, and then the rest is history.

How would you explain your research if you were explaining it to a second-grader?

So Alzheimer's disease is a brain disorder that impairs cognition and your brain. I am interested in looking at females who were either pregnant or not pregnant, and then how Alzheimer's disease affects their brain and their cognition in middle age.

Do you have any early findings? Or any interesting leads yet?

Yeah, we do. But it's a bit more complicated, so it's not going to be for the second-grader. We found some differences that have to do with the APOE epsilon 4 (APOEe4) allele, which is a genetic risk factor for late-onset sporadic Alzheimer's disease. 

The rats that had the genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease made more errors in the spatial working memory task compared to healthy wildtype rats - which is what we expected to find. What’s interesting is that there were differences in search strategies in the memory task between groups of rats that had been pregnant vs never pregnant. Basically, the rats that had been pregnant before were less efficient than rats that had never been pregnant before. This shows the long-term effects that pregnancy can have on the brain, which is always exciting to see. We also found differences in neurogenesis and neuroinflammation measures between the groups. APOEe4 rats (the rats that had the genetic risk) had more neural stem cells but fewer new neurons in the brain compared to wildtypes -- suggesting that perhaps their neural stem cells weren’t very active in the sense that they didn’t become new neurons, or maybe they became something else, like astrocytes or other neural stem cells. On the other hand, rats that had been pregnant saw the opposite effect: they had fewer neural stem cells but more new neurons compared to rats that had never been pregnant. This could mean that rats that had been pregnant had neural stem cells that were really active and were able to become new neurons. I won’t go into any more detail here, but if anyone has any follow-up questions or anything, they can email me anytime [bonnie_lee@psych.ubc.ca].

So, what stage of research are you in right now? 

So my first chapter, I guess, my first big experiment has been done. I am dealing with brain samples now and processing the tissue to finish up analyses of different measures. Specifically, I have been looking at measures of neurogenesis, neuroinflammation, and a little bit of tryptophan metabolomics as well. So just finishing up those analyses. I am hoping to start my next chapter in January, where we will be looking closer at sex differences this time and differences between rats with either APOEe3 or APOEe4.

What makes you excited about the future in women’s health research?

I think things like the Woman's Health Research Cluster. The WHRC is helping diverse and multidisciplinary trainees and researchers find each other and collaborate on new projects, which is really exciting. I am looking forward to seeing what kind of research comes out of those collaborations. 

I am also really hopeful about the fact that the cluster is targeting a wide audience. We don’t just involve trainees and researchers, but also policymakers, patient partners, health practitioners … getting the public involved and making them aware that women's health is important. I think that is a huge step and an important one.

Practicing knowledge translation in science is still new to me. But I think it's so important because you could be doing all this work, but we need people to be aware of the work so it can be applied appropriately. And that way, your research becomes more meaningful, I think.

After talking about your journey, do you have any advice for people just starting or interested in research?

Practically speaking, I would say, do your research. Look into different topics that you might be interested in, but also different researchers and their body of work. Try talking to graduate students and early-career professors. For me, at least, talking to different people and getting their perspective has been very insightful.

Before I started, I used to think, “[research] is so boring, I would never want to do this.” But, as I started to talk to more principal investigators and graduate students, and as I started to become involved in labs as a volunteer, I began to realize what it’s really to be in research, and I began to really like it! So I would suggest talking to people, keeping an open mind, and find ways to get involved in research early on.

Is there something that people can look forward to coming from you in the future? 

I do have a chapter that should be published soon. It is a chapter on the sex differences in neurogenesis and the implications for Alzheimer’s disease, and I wrote it with another member of my lab and the research cluster, Tanvi Puri as well as Dr. Liisa Galea. Yeah, I guess other than that, just more experiments and hoping to publish more papers soon!

Alex and Arrthy (Women's Health Blog Coordinators) would like to thank Bonnie for taking the time for this interview. To our readers: keep an eye out for more blogs and interviews! If you would like to be featured, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at womenshealth.blog@ubc.ca