Traditionally, many health-related research projects focused only on males, assuming that females’ bodies would respond the same way to a given intervention or drug. But more often, scientists are uncovering important distinctions between men’s and women’s health, pointing to the need for dedicated attention to understand the intricacies of the differences.
The Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health (BIRCWH) program at Penn was founded in 2016 to address the disparity in health-research attention to women’s health and sex differences by supporting faculty interested in these areas. With funding from the National Institutes of Health Office of Research on Women’s Health and Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the program focuses particularly on bolstering the career development of junior faculty engaged in this vein of scientific work.
BIRCWH offers funding that enables select faculty to pursue pilot research projects on some area of sex differences or women’s health research. Junior faculty members Melanie Kornides of the School of Nursing and Jennifer Lewey of the Perelman School of Medicine have been announced as 2018 BIRCWH fellows, and a third, C. Alix Timko of Penn Medicine and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), is continuing in a second year of a program-supported study.
Kornides is an assistant professor at Penn Nursing’s Department of Family and Community Health. Prior to joining Penn’s faculty, Kornides completed her postdoctoral research fellowship in the Department of Population Medicine at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute. Kornides received an Sc.D. from Harvard and a master’s degree from George Mason University, both in epidemiology. She also received a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Ohio State University and a master’s from the University of Michigan in community health nursing.
Overall, Kornides’ research focuses on the utilization of big data to contextualize sex disparities in pediatric and women’s health. The research she plans to conduct while in the BIRCWH program seeks to address sex disparities in HPV-vaccination uptake. Assessing these disparities bears on women’s health, as improving vaccination coverage of adolescent boys will reduce HPV infections in the general population and HPV-related diseases and cancers for both females and males.
Lewey is an assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine at Penn Medicine, director of the Penn Women’s Cardiovascular Center and co-director of the Pregnancy and Heart Disease Program. She completed her bachelor’s at Brandeis University and her M.D. from Harvard Medical School. After residency and fellowship, she received a master’s in public health in clinical effectiveness from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
For her BIRCWH-funded research, Lewey will study obesity prevention in high-risk postpartum women, primarily African-Americans. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in women, and pregnancy represents a timepoint in life when women gain excessive weight. At one year postpartum, almost one-third of lower-income women will become newly overweight or obese, increasing their risk for cardiovascular diseases in middle and older age. Lewey’s research aims to better understand the predictors of excessive postpartum weight retention in order to deliver effective and scalable weight loss interventions during a time when women are at the highest risk.
Timko, a second-year scholar with the BIRCWH program, is an assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Penn Medicine as well as a psychologist in the Eating Disorder Assessment and Treatment Program in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at CHOP. Timko received her bachelor’s from St. Lawrence University, followed by her master’s in clinical psychology from MCP Hahnemann University. She received her Ph.D. from Drexel University.
Timko’s BIRCWH-sponsored research will use functional brain imaging to focus on the reward system in adolescent males who go to CHOP with anorexia. Her research aims to fully describe the course of eating disorders in a sample of adolescent males, and to use this information to inform specific hypotheses regarding sex differences in the neurobiology of anorexia. During anorexia, a phenomenon referred to as contamination of reward and punishment occurs; food becomes a fear stimulus and consuming food becomes punishing, whereas restricting it becomes rewarding. Disruptions in the reward circuitry in anorexia have not yet been explored in males, and Timko’s research will serve to fill an important and critical hole in the research of adolescent eating disorders.
The BIRCWH program was established with a $1.9 million grant from the NIH. There are currently more than 20 active BIRCWH programs at U.S. universities.