WISDOM symposium addresses equity in research – including who’s being left out
Dr. Brandy Wicklow is a pediatric endocrinologist – an expert on hormones in children.
The UM associate professor of pediatrics and child health had long focused her research on Type 2 diabetes in kids.
But through her clinical work providing gender-affirming hormone therapy to transgender children and teens at the Gender Diversity and Affirming Action for Youth (GDAAY) clinic at the Winnipeg Children’s Hospital, Wicklow became acutely aware of the lack of research on the health-care needs of gender-diverse youth.
“Data is important for advocacy and policy change,” the professor told about 120 attendees at the 2023 Equity Symposium held by Women in Science: Development, Outreach and Mentoring (WISDOM).
“Nobody was going to fund the expansion of a clinic if nobody believed these kids were coming and seeking this type of treatment.”
That’s why Wicklow, who is also a researcher with the Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba, co-authored a 2018 study of the transgender youth seeking GDAAY services. It found that they had high rates of anxiety and depression, faced adversity in health-care settings and were distressed over long wait times for mental health services.
The professor used the evidence from the study – along with data on the growing demand for the clinic’s services – to support her advocacy for improved care.
Recently, she said, the clinic secured $700,000 in new provincial funding that will allow it to expand and hire additional staff.
The WISDOM Equity Symposium was held on Sept. 28 at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Speakers came from the Universities of British Columbia, Toronto and Alberta, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), and from within UM, including equity champions in the fields of engineering and astrophysics.
WISDOM, an organization supported by the UM Rady Faculty of Health Sciences, was founded and is chaired by Dr. Neeloffer Mookherjee, a UM professor of internal medicine and immunology who holds Canada’s first Sex and Gender Science Chair in Circulatory and Respiratory Health.
The symposium received funding from the Rady Faculty, as well as from the CIHR Institute of Gender and Health.
Several speakers emphasized that to achieve equity in research, scientists must take into account gender as well as biological sex, and must acknowledge intersectionality – the ways in which aspects of a person’s identity, such as race, disability and gender identity, can intersect in experiences of discrimination.
“As health researchers … how we collect our data, who we include in our studies, what questions we pursue, whose voices we listen to, and whose voices we render silenced – all of these questions [are] absolutely critical,” said keynote speaker Dr. Angela Kaida, a racialized immigrant woman who is scientific director of the CIHR Institute of Gender and Health.
Speaker Dr. Sofia Ahmed, a kidney specialist and professor of medicine at the University of Alberta, spoke about the need for research to optimize transgender health. She said there is virtually no research data on how gender-affirming hormone therapies affect kidney function, the cardiovascular system and other aspects of health.
Feminizing and masculinizing hormones are prescribed in many forms – from pills to patches – that should be studied specifically in transgender users, and trans people with lived experience should be involved in every phase of that research, Ahmed said.
“This is a social justice issue,” she said. “People want to know things like ‘Should I be taking injectable estrogen, or estrogen by mouth? Which one is better for me … if I’m going to be on this for the next 50 years or so?’”
At the conclusion of the symposium, Courtney Marshall and Dana Wiens, UM learners who had presented short talks on their research, were recognized with awards from the CIHR Institute of Gender and Health.
Marshall, a PhD student in immunology, studied sex-related differences in the lungs of mice after they were exposed to asthma-inducing allergens.
Wiens, a medical student, studied how difficult it was for a cohort of First Nations people from Winnipeg, Norway House Cree Nation and St. Theresa Point First Nation to access health care, including comparing women’s and men’s access difficulties.