Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

Scotia Scholars Awards: StFX students researching projects from eating disorders in varsity athletes to the relationship between sleep and colorectal cancer

July 19th, 2021
StFX Scotia Scholars include, top row from left, Haley Keenan, Rachael MacDonald-Spracklin, Hannah Ellis, and Kate Graham. Bottom row: Alison Walsh, Samantha Fisher, Meagan Boatsmith and Emilee Coish. Missing from photo: Jenny Li and Krista Whitfield. 

Ten StFX students are involved in innovative research this summer, working on projects ranging from the normalization of eating disorders in women varsity athletes to the association between sleep, circadian rhythm disruption, and colorectal cancer, as recipients of the Scotia Scholars Undergraduate Award, a program of Reseach Nova Scotia.  

The awards provide financial support to students with exceptional potential who are or wish to be engaged in health research. 

The research award is valued at $7,000 and provides 16 weeks employment. 

This year’s recipients include Meaghan Boatsmith, Emilee Coish, Hannah Ellis, Samantha Fisher, Kate Graham, Haley Keenan, Yu Li, Rachael MacDonald-Spracklin, Alison Walsh and Krista Whitfield. 

The students say the award is not only enabling them to gain research experience, but also confidence, and to contribute knowledge to important issues. 

“This award has allowed me to begin my background research for my honours thesis that I will be writing this fall. My research focuses on women cross country runners attending Canadian universities and the pressures that they face as athletes, specifically the high prevalence of eating disorders and disordered eating,” says Meaghan Boatsmith of Hamilton, ON, going into her fourth year, taking a Bachelor of Arts in human kinetics with honours and a minor in psychology. She is supervised by Dr. Charlene Weaving and Dr. Angela Kolen. 

“Most of my research will seek to explain the societal and athletic pressures that distance runners face, as well as the impact that the sport has on developing unhealthy eating habits and training regiments. This summer I will compile my literature review and solidify my methodology.”

Ms. Boatsmith says being a recipient of the Scotia Scholars Award has given her the opportunity to conduct extensive research regarding the normalization of eating disorders and disordered eating in women varsity athletes, which will allow her to fully delve into her project as soon as she returns to campus. 

“This gave me the necessary tools to focus on my project and really familiarize myself with the research process. I feel confident that due to this award, I have had the opportunity to expand my knowledge which will greatly benefit my thesis project as well as time management next year.” 

OPENED DOORS

Alison Walsh, of St. John’s, NL, a fourth year BASc health student taking a concentration in biomedicine, says this opportunity has opened so many doors for her.

“I have been able to pursue my interest in medical coding, which is the medium through which I will be studying the genomic data,” says Ms. Walsh, who is studying the association between sleep, circadian rhythm disruption, and colorectal cancer. 

Circadian rhythms are roughly 24-hour biological cycles that alter the expression of clock genes, she says, thereby influencing protein production and resultant bodily processes such as sleep-wake cycles and sleep abnormalities. “It has been shown that abnormal sleep can increase one’s risk for colorectal cancer, and with Atlantic Canada suffering from a disproportionately high rate of colorectal cancer, I hope to find some insights on this relationship through exploration of genomic data,” she says. 

“Participating in research like this is great experience that I can carry with me through my career and help me reach the goal of becoming a medical doctor. Finally, my work with this study will be used towards my honours thesis.” 

Ms. Walsh is supervised by Dr. Derrick Lee. 

INCREDIBLE IMPACT

Hannah Ellis of Halifax, NS, a graduate of the BSc human kinetics program, is spending the summer working with Dr. Jen Jamieson on her ongoing student-athlete GIS study. 

“This has been such an incredible opportunity, not only to work with other athletes but to also enhance my research abilities and other skills that are transferable into a variety of careers. Working on this project has changed my perspective on what I thought research was and has grown my confidence to potentially work on other studies in this field,” says Ms. Ellis. 

“The project is a mixed-methods investigation, including both an initial survey and follow-up interview component,” she says. “The survey's aim is to explore the dietary practices, extent and type of exercise-associated gastrointestinal symptoms (ExGIS), and the perceived impact on training and competition of student-athletes. Follow-up, in-depth interviews will explore the practices and beliefs of these athletes in managing ExGIS and the barriers or enablers faced in managing symptoms during training and competition.” 

Ms. Ellis says she has been involved in sport her entire life and is currently a member of the StFX women’s rugby team. “During the summer I coach both provincial and youth rugby where I was able to work with both high-performance athletes and those just beginning their journey in sport. My involvement in sport, both as a coach and a player, enhances my ability to understand the athlete’s perspective and discomfort in the issue relevant to this project. This project has grown my knowledge of how nutrition can be used as a tool to fuel peak performance in athletes,” she says. 

CARE FOR PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES 

Kate Graham of Carleton Place, ON, a fourth year student in the BASc Health program, majoring in social determinants and health equity and minoring in biomedical sciences, is investigating how medical schools in Eastern Canada represent and include the perspectives of people living with disabilities within their curricula. She is supervised by Dr. Katie Aubrecht. 

“The Scotia Scholar Award has provided me with an incredible opportunity to contribute to the field of health research regarding accessible health services and the well-being of Nova Scotians by illustrating the possibilities and limitations of existing medical education curriculum in Eastern Canada, pertaining to care for persons with disabilities. The research I am conducting will form the basis of my honours thesis and take the first step towards enhancing the quality of medical care that people with disabilities receive in Eastern Canada, by centering the perspectives of people living with disabilities within medical understandings of disability. I am extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to do this work, and to be supported by Research Nova Scotia.”

DIRECT IMPACT

Samantha Fisher, a third year human nutrition student from Gander, NL, says the opportunity she has been given to undertake this research project allows her to make a direct impact on the health of Canadians. 

She says currently there is a lack of data on the nutrient composition of gluten-free foods, making it challenging for dietitians and health care professionals to adequately assess the diet of gluten-free individuals. “In response to this, this summer, I am completing a nutrient composition database for gluten-free foods that will be formatted into a manuscript for publication. This publication will be used as an additional diet assessment tool by dietitians and health care professionals to complete an accurate diet analysis for gluten-free individuals. This will help to ensure nutritional adequacy for Canadians to improve their overall health,” she says.

“I will provide dietitians and health care professionals with an improved understanding of the gluten-free diet, which in turn will allow these professionals to provide more accurate care for gluten-free individuals to improve their wellbeing. This is very rewarding to have the opportunity to make such an impact on the health of Canadians. In addition, this research experience provides me with the exposure and skill set necessary to pursue my future endeavours to become a doctor. I am exceptionally grateful for this amazing opportunity.” Ms. Fisher is supervised by Dr. Jen Jamieson. 

Jenny Li, a fourth year sociology student from Calgary, AB, supervised by Dr. Katie Aubrecht, is conducting a scoping review on the best practices surrounding integrated youth mental health services (IYS) in a Canadian context. “IYS is an emerging form of service provision where different resources are showcased at a central and accessible area, embedded into the community, and developed with a user centered philosophy. I will augment my secondary research with original interviews. I hope to engage three IYS administrators, service providers, and service users each across multiple provinces,” they say.

“My goal is to better understand the challenges and successes that diverse stakeholders experience in promoting youth wellness. On a personal level, I hope to grow closer to different communities across Canada and come away with a greater literacy of their unique mental health landscapes. On a social level, I hope to influence health policy and inform the progression of our mental health systems. For example, I am sharing my findings with a budding IYS organization in Alberta.”

Rachael MacDonald-Spracklin of Antigonish, NS, a fourth year honours BASc Health student doing a concentration in the biomedical stream, says her research for the summer and her honours thesis is a branch-off of Dr. Kara Thompson's larger Sex and Cannabis Study, which they completed collecting data for in the spring. “We had approximately 200 participants complete daily diaries twice a day, with about 100 of those students also wearing a Fitbit device to track physiological data, both over a 14-day period,” she says. 

“For my project, I am focusing on the co-use of cannabis and alcohol and the potential health effects or negative consequences of using these substances simultaneously. More specifically, I am examining physiological health effects at the within-person level to see if there are significant differences between patterns of substance use (such as co-use days vs. cannabis alone days) and impacts on health. This is mainly focused on a harm reduction approach to substance use and ultimately will fill gaps in current knowledge on the topic to help inform cannabis policy and develop educational programs promoting safer use patterns.” 

Over the summer, she is working in Dr. Thompson's SHEA lab doing various tasks. “I have the chance to work on my own project but also the incredible opportunity to work on a few of Dr. Thompson's other projects. This has given me valuable experience in collaborating with other universities and experts across Canada,” she says. 

“I am beyond appreciative to have received this award and have the chance to get a head start on my honours project before the school year begins. This award means that I have the chance to further my knowledge and skillset in a research setting, along with building leadership, as I dive into my own project for the first time in over a year and a half of previous research experience. Being a Scotia Scholar means I can have hands-on experience in an area of study that I am passionate about and help further knowledge to improve the health and well-being of young people. Along with this, I am excited and grateful to have the chance to work alongside an amazing team of nationally recognized scholars and experts to provide my own contribution in an area that will have a significant impact on safe substance use. Throughout my research so far, I have learned a lot of course, but this award has given me the opportunity to further prepare for my future in the research field.”

Haley Keenan, a fourth year psychology student from Saint John, NB supervised by Dr. Erin Mazerolle, says her research is a replication study, looking at a group of older individuals called SuperAgers, individuals over the age of 65 who are resistant to age-related memory decline, who instead display memory capabilities in the range of young adults. “I will be comparing the functional connectivity strength of the default mode network and salience networks of SuperAgers to typical older adults.”

She says this opportunity allows her to work on her thesis over the summer. “Overall, this experience will improve the quality of my research and advance my skills as a researcher.”

HELP IN FUTURE GOALS

Emilee Coish, a fourth year nursing student from Moncton, NB, is exploring parents’ perspectives of the barriers and facilitators to the use of parent-led infant pain care in rural neonatal critical care environments in Nova Scotia. She is supervised by Dr. Britney Benoit. "Breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact (SSC) have been shown to have pain relieving effects for newborn infants during painful procedures. However, despite this evidence, these interventions are underutilized in hospital settings. The identification of barriers and facilitators will offer insight into how to better implement these parent-led pain-relieving strategies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU)," she says. 

"I am very grateful for this opportunity that has allowed me to conduct research with my honours supervisor over the summer months. This award has given me the chance to expand my nursing research skills. I am learning how nurses collaborate with patients and families in research contexts in order to make positive changes to healthcare services. These skills will help in the pursuance of my future career goal to become a nurse practitioner."

Krista Whitfield's research is focused on “Mapping the Participant Experience in Controlled Human Infection Model Trials: A Modified Grounded Theory Study.” She is supervised by Dr. Donna Halperin.

 

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