Stephanie Vahaaho, University of Calgary
July 23, 2018
Markin undergrad seeks to understand connection between maternal anxiety and offspring brain function
Scanning preschool-aged children using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) equipment is a challenge that Bachelor of Health Sciences undergraduate Claire Donnici is embracing this summer. Donnici is studying the relationship between prenatal maternal anxiety and children's brain function. This work integrates her interests in child development, mental health and neuroscience. “Not only am I intrigued by the anatomy of the brain, but I am really interested in learning about how a child’s early environment affects their development,” Donnici says.
Faculty mentors create exceptional opportunities like Donnici’s for undergraduates who earn Markin Undergraduate Student Research Program (USRP) studentships. From May through September, Donnici’s faculty mentor is Dr. Catherine Lebel, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Radiology and member of the of Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine. Lebel investigates brain development in children and adolescents, seeking to influence the early identification and effective treatment of children with developmental disorders.
Donnici’s work with Lebel is focused on understanding the association between a mother’s anxiety during different trimesters of pregnancy and her preschool child’s brain function. Pictured above, Lebel and Donnici are building upon the knowledge that maternal anxiety can detrimentally impact children’s cognition and behaviour. To date, very little empirical work has been done with preschoolers specifically in this field of inquiry.
Donnici is using MRI technology to investigate her research questions and says in the past, researchers have focused on infants and adolescents. Because preschoolers can be difficult to scan using MRI equipment, less insight into the brain function of this cohort exists. “This age range is an important one to study because the preschool years represent a period of extensive brain development,” says Donnici.
The desired outcomes of Donnici and Lebel’s work include informing best practice and interventions for mothers and children in the future. While the project unfolds, Donnici is truly enjoying “helping out with MRI scans in the lab. I love interacting with the children and families that participate in our studies.”
The Markin USRP in Health and Wellness is a university-wide undergraduate research program that gives students the opportunity to conduct a full research project while still an undergraduate student. Since 2002, the Markin USRP has provided 730 undergraduate students with the unique opportunity to work alongside leading university researchers early in their post-secondary education. The primary goal of the program is to enrich and enhance the undergraduate experience at the University of Calgary.
Graeme Bell USRP Travel Awards are also available for students who have conducted health and wellness research as a University of Calgary undergraduate through any funding program and who have presented their research at a conference. Travel can be provincial, national or international.
Visit the Markin USRP in Health and Wellness website to learn more about these opportunities and to download the application forms.