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International Women's Day: UBC Day on the Hill

Authors: Bonnie Lee, PhD student, WHRC Data Analyst and Dr. Liisa Galea, PhD, WHRC Lead

The advancement in scientific knowledge is astounding to watch. The pace of science is expanding, and it is sometimes difficult to keep up with our changing world. One example of the fast pace of scientific research has been getting several vaccines for COVID-19 in such a short period of time. Who would have believed that we could have so many great options in less than a year? Why we are so far ahead in these discoveries is largely due to scientific research. Thankfully, many researchers have been studying things like bat coronaviruses and the efficacy of mRNA vaccines for many years. 

However, one thing we are woefully behind on here in Canada and across the world is women’s health research. We know that women suffer from poorer health than men due to missed diagnoses, minimized symptoms, a greater burden of certain diseases and because drugs are often tested in males and men. This has resulted in poorly targeted treatment for women, who generally have greater side effects from drug treatment. 

That is why here at the Women’s Health Research Cluster, we were thrilled to see that in late 2019, the Prime Minister’s Minister of Health Mandate Letter, included a call for increased support for women’s health research. Why? Because despite recent advances in sex-and gender-based (or sex-and-gender-based analysis, SGBA) research, women’s health research has historically been – and continues to be – underrepresented and underfunded across research disciplines. This is a critical issue that affects the health of 50% of the world population. Clearly, a lack of research jeopardizes the health and wellbeing of all women. 

The members of the Women’s Health Research Cluster (WHRC) have been working tirelessly to fill this gap. The WHRC is a growing network of multidisciplinary researchers and research partners, including clinicians, community partners, and trainees, who are engaged or interested in women’s health research. Our objectives are to spotlight and advocate for women’s health research and catalyze collaborations for women’s health research. Together, we are working to expand our knowledge of how different female-specific experiences – such as menstruation, hormonal contraceptives, pregnancy, and menopause – and gendered experiences influence women’s health and healthcare.

Bonnie Lee and Liisa Galea at UBC on the Hill event in 2019 (Photo: Bonnie Lee)

In March 2019, just before the pandemic hit us in full force, we were fortunate to have some of our WHRC members invited to attend the UBC ‘Day on the Hill’ in Ottawa. The goal of ‘Day on the Hill’ is to establish relationships with parliamentarians, showcase the university’s strengths, and begin to influence the ideas that may shape future policies.  As a world-renowned research university, one of UBC’s goals for this visit was to convey the value of investing in university education, research, and students. Together, Dr. Dermot P. Kelleher (Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Vice-President of Health at UBC),  Dr. Liisa Galea (the lead of the WHRC), and Bonnie Lee (graduate student and Trainee Lead of the WHRC) represented UBC Health and met with several stakeholders, including members of parliament, Health Canada representatives, and the Deputy Minister of Health. Our health team spoke with these stakeholders about the goals of the Faculty of Medicine at UBC and Galea and Lee spoke about the cluster and their work in women’s health research. 

For Galea and Lee, it was an exciting time to advocate for the urgent need to prioritize women’s health research as distinct from and in addition to sex-and-gender based research. Lee highlighted that supporting research initiatives and graduate students with federal funding and work-integrated learning opportunities is imperative to improving the productivity and quality of research. Students in all academic endeavours are our future. They will become the future research leaders and we will need to count on their work to weather the next great global challenge.  

As noted, during each meeting, we advocated for the need for women’s health research and the important return on investment that training in research provides (both to the student and to the knowledge economy). We need to look no further than our current pandemic to understand the importance of inclusion of both sexes and all genders in research. COVID-19 is more likely to result in ICU visits and mortality in men compared to women, indicating a need to understand why this might be as this could lead to more effective treatments in men. Further, vaccine trials failed to include pregnant women, and this lack of inclusion has left many families in turmoil over the right course of action to take. Funding research, and in particular women’s health research, will significantly contribute to the health and wellbeing of all Canadians for years to come.

Kelleher, Galea, and Lee had insightful conversations with the following stakeholders: Stephen Lucas (Deputy Minister of Health), Kathryn Nowers (Director of Policy, Office of the Minister of Health), Don Davies (Member of Parliament for Vancouver Kingsway), Matt Jeneroux (Member of Parliament for Edmonton Riverbend), Jessica Halverson (Director of Research and Innovation for the Department of Women and Gender Equality), and Anna Romano (VP Health Promotion and Chronic Disease).