Preeclampsia is a pregnancy-related disease in which complications inflict harm onto the mother and/or baby, and in severe cases may lead to death. These complications are known to affect 2-8% of all pregnancies. My research has two aims focused on uncovering the methodology behind preeclampsia so that it may be diagnosed prior to delivery and successfully combated against. The first relationship I am looking at is one between physical activity levels and the risk of developing preeclampsia. I have theorized that an increase in physical activity levels during pregnancy will cause a decrease in the risk of developing preeclampsia. This will be assessed by the Pregnancy Physical Activity Questionnaire and postpartum medical reports stating if any diagnoses of preeclampsia were present. Preeclampsia is marked by high blood pressure, so the second aim will look at the relationship between the development of preeclampsia and endothelial dysfunction. The endothelium is the layer of cells that line organs, cavities, and especially blood vessels, the heart, and the lymphatic system. I will be looking at how fast blood flows between two points on the body, a measurement called Pulse-Wave Velocity, that will indicate the stiffness of the arteries. Other measurements will also be collected to help assess arterial stiffness, and thus endothelial dysfunction.
I started into this research lab my sophomore year. What I expected was being in a setting similar to my advanced biology lab courses where we ran experiments such as western-blots, PCR reactions, and such. Though my lab does have this component, I chose to be involved in the clinical side of my research, where I would go to see human participants in the hospital. I really enjoyed interacting with human subjects because it made my work feel more personal and translatable to human life. I have learned a lot of new techniques since my first day, such as collecting images of the arterial walls contracting and relaxing as blood flows and also recording blood pressures by listening to the sound of the heart. What surprised me, however, was how difficult it could be to collect clear vascular measurements since a lot of our work required participants to lie still and awake for 2.5 hours, and occasionally not swallow. At times like those, the vascular imaging data would become too distorted or imprecise for the analysis software later. Thus I learned how to help communicate these needs to the participant in a way that still kept them calm and comfortable but help bring clarity and accuracy to the data. Luckily, we have not ran into any major challenges in our study, and so our research question has remained the same.
What have you learned about life as a scientist?
What I’ve learned about the life of a scientist is that your study makes your schedule, in most cases. Though my role in my lab is more flexible than my more experienced peers who tend to be involved in more than one study, my weekly schedule is still created by the availability of the participants. This was sometimes a great thing, such as when your participants come in on time and everything runs smoothly. But it can also have cons, such as participants never showing up, canceling at the last minute, or having scheduled visits at painfully early hours like 7 a.m. What has made it continuously worth it has been getting to learn something new every day not just from my scientific peers, but also from the participants who volunteer their time to helping us hopefully discover more answers and treatments. Being a part of these efforts to understand preeclampsia and mitigate its impact on up to 8% of pregnant women has been one of my most valuable involvements and I hope to continue to grow in this area and as an aspiring scientist.