A PhD and a post-doctoral student at Western have been named among the recipients of the 2023 Ontario Women’s Health Scholars Award.
Conferred by the Council of Ontario Universities the award recognizes groundbreaking research on women’s health taking place at Ontario institutions.
This year ten researchers from Ontario universities are being recognized. Among the recipients are Jenna Schulz and Hoda Seens of Western.
Funded by the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, the awards program provides each recipient with up to $50,000 to continue their research.
Jenna Schulz: Returning to sport after giving birth
Schulz is the first combined post-doctoral fellow and sport physiotherapy fellow at the Fowler-Kennedy Sport Medicine Clinic at Western and was struck by the lack of guidance for women who want to return to sport safely after giving birth.
To address the gap Schulz is looking to develop clinical practice guidelines for postpartum athletes, exploring the relationship between returning to athletics and potential health concerns.
“Many women are told that at six weeks after giving birth they are ‘fine’ and can continue life as normal. However, this is not always feasible due to all the trauma and changes their bodies experience,” said Schulz.
Additionally, Schulz found there to be a stigma around women returning to high-level sport after giving birth.
“We know many women can have children and not only compete but excel at high levels, such as Kenyan long-distance runner Faith Kipyegon, who has broken three world records in the span of a month. We need to help women get back to high levels, we need to support them,” said Schulz.
Schulz encourages her patients to view childbirth as they would view an injury or trauma. Like someone who has broken a bone, rolled an ankle or undergone surgery, they have to gradually return to high-level activity.
The first step of her research is to conduct a systematic review of existing literature to understand the current guidelines available. From there Schulz is aiming to conduct surveys with postpartum athletes and professionals specializing in women’s health.
Once all the necessary data is compiled an expert panel of clinicians and patients will develop clinical practice guidelines.
Schulz’s goal is to close the gap between clinical practice and research. Receiving this award, she said, is a validation of her efforts and she hopes it can serve as a source of inspiration for other researchers.
“Research is both challenging and very rewarding. I think women’s health research, although improving, has a long way to go. We need more women in research because we have the capacity to make meaningful change in the world,” said Schulz.
Hoda Seens: COVID-19 and women’s mental health
When it became clear the COVID-19 pandemic was having a negative effect on mental health for many people, Seens wondered if some were experiencing these effects disproportionately.
Seens is a doctoral candidate in health promotion at Western, and she conducted one of the first studies to assess the difference, by sex as well as gender, in the pandemic’s impact on mental health.
“Our findings demonstrated that women were being disproportionately affected and we were able to capture the effects on gender-diverse individuals,” said Seens. “Women and gender-diverse individuals had significantly increased levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms following the start of the pandemic.”
Having developed a two-part study to examine anxiety and depressive symptoms, Seens was able to explore the lived experiences of women and gender diverse individuals.
Her team also examined types of personal characteristics related to experiencing anxiety and depression during the pandemic. They found that being a mother or gender nonconforming parent was related to increased levels of anxiety and depression during the pandemic.
While her research is critical to understanding how women and gender-diverse individuals were being impacted by the pandemic, it also has implications beyond COVID-19, said Seens.
“What we can learn going forward is that some groups are more affected than others, even in seemingly universal conditions (such as a pandemic) based on their sex, gender identity and family roles,” said Seens.
She is now using her findings to raise awareness about women’s mental health. Seens and her colleagues are creating infographics that can be used to connect women in Ontario to mental health resources and services.
Seens said being able to create awareness and knowledge is what drives her, and that the award will allow her to continue with the next steps in her work. She echoed Schulz in the need to encourage women to pursue research.
“There is no feeling as exhilarating as creating knowledge. You can be a woman of any age and engage in research and make a meaningful impact on health and society,” said Seens.