Sept. 21, 2021

Two UCalgary postdocs receive Alice Wilson Awards for outstanding academic qualifications

Health science scholars are first from university to win in at least 15 years
RSC Alice Wilson Award winners

Two University of Calgary postdoctoral scholars, Dr. Jacquie Baker, PhD, and Dr. Rosanne Blanchet, PhD, have been awarded the Royal Society of Canada’s Alice Wilson Award for outstanding academic qualifications in health sciences. The scholars have won two of four available awards, a first for UCalgary in at least 15 years. 

The Alice Wilson Award is presented annually to four or fewer women, chosen from the female winners of postdoctoral fellowships of the federal tri-agencies: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), National Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). It is named for Dr. Alice Wilson, a world-renowned paleontologist and the first woman elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 1938.

“We are thrilled to have two UCalgary postdocs recognized by the Royal Society of Canada,” says Dr. Penny Pexman, postdoctoral program director and associate vice-president (research). “Drs. Baker and Blanchet are pursuing bold new ideas in their research, and we look forward to all they will accomplish.”

Blanchet’s work focuses on examining socioeconomic position as a way to explain racial inequities in health, while Baker is looking at new ways to measure and treat low blood pressure caused by autonomic nervous system failures.

Examining racial inequities in health during COVID-19

Blanchet’s current postdoctoral work is being supervised by Dr. Dana Olstad, PhD, a registered dietitian and assistant professor of population/public health in the Department of Community Studies at the University of Calgary. Olstad is an internationally recognized public health nutrition research leader and Blanchet is excited to learn from her expertise and mentorship.

When asked to describe her work and its impacts, Blanchet says, “My project examines how social determinants and policies shape nutrition and health, particularly among individuals from racial, ethnic or cultural minority groups. It will contribute to our knowledge about mechanisms perpetuating racial and ethnic inequities in nutrition and health. This information can be used to inform program and policy strategies to close the health gap for racial and ethnic minority groups across Canada.”

For her project, Blanchet will be examining how and why the diets and health of adults from racial/ethnic minority groups changed during the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada and Alberta, and what it was like for people to go through these changes.

The project will also ask decision-makers and people from racial/ethnic minority groups which programs and policies they think are the most important for protecting the diets and health of people from racial/ethnic minority groups in Canada.

Blanchet will also be using data from the Canadian Community Health Survey - Nutrition to examine whether and how racial/ethnic inequities in diet quality changed in Canada between 2004 and 2015.

Blanchet says receiving the Alice Wilson Award will be a “gold star” on her CV and help her throughout her career. “It means that researchers recognize my potential for research leadership in my field. It gives credibility to my work. It also bolsters my confidence in my research potential.”

Understanding why automatic body functions, like breathing, can fail

Fellow award recipient Baker has spent six years in clinical autonomic nervous system research. Disorders of the autonomic nervous system are uniquely positioned between neurology and cardiology, but also underrepresented in both. She is excited for this new opportunity to bridge the gap and integrate the fields by working together with her supervisors, Dr. Satish Raj, MD, and Dr. Richard Wilson, PhD, on her research at the University of Calgary.

“It is very easy to take for granted the many processes our body does automatically. We do not have to tell our heart to beat, our lungs to breathe or our blood pressure to be stable,” she says.

“After working in an autonomic clinic for two years, and seeing the devastating impact of what it means to have your autonomic nervous system fail, my passion for research and to find solutions to autonomic diseases was ignited. My decision thereafter to pursue my doctorate, with a focus on disorders of the autonomic nervous system, was a no-brainer.”

Through her postdoctoral research with the University of Calgary, in collaboration with her supervisors, she hopes to bring greater awareness to autonomic nervous system failure, which she describes as being quite prevalent, despite many people not knowing what it is.

Her research project will involve patients who experience significant drops in blood pressure when standing due to failure in their autonomic nervous system, a condition known as neurogenic orthostatic hypotension (NOH). For this project, she will explore whether breathing slightly higher levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) can help increase blood pressure.

She will also apply a technique known as optical coherence tomography (OCT), which is widely used in eye clinics to view eye structure. OCT will be applied in a novel way to allow Baker to examine blood vessels and blood flow near the brain that respond to sympathetic activity. The goal of the project is to determine if breathing elevated levels of CO2 can improve standing blood pressure and symptoms for NOH patients, to evaluate OCT as a novel tool to measure sympathetic control of brain blood flow, and determine if a device that increases CO2 while standing could work as a new therapy.

Baker says receiving the Alice Wilson Award is an honour and will help her with her research now, and in the future. “My career goal is to establish my own autonomic research facility that fosters collaborations between academics, clinicians and industry to advance autonomic nervous system research, and excite a generation of researchers who are as passionate about this field of study as I am.”

Dana Olstad is an assistant professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences in the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology, and is a member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute and O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the CSM

Satish Raj is a professor in the Department of Cardiac Sciences and member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute at the CSM.

Richard Wilson is a professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Physiology, and a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the CSM. 

The RSC Award nomination period opens Jan. 15, 2022 and closes March 31, 2022. RSC Awards celebrate outstanding contributions from across disciplines and across generations. The Royal Society of Canada is the recognized pre-eminent body of independent scholars, researchers, and creative people in Canada whose members comprise a collegium that can provide intellectual leadership for the betterment of Canada and the world. Learn more on the Research website.