The Women and Children’s Health Research Institute (WCHRI) was founded in 2006 with the principle of improving women and children’s health through research.
Sandra Davidge, a professor at the University of Alberta and WCHRI’s Executive Director, along with Breanne Fisher, the director of stewardship communication and marketing at WCHRI, discussed what WCHRI has faced over the past 15 years and how it has helped improve the overall quality of life of women and children.
Davidge’s research has been focussed on pregnancy complications and their implications on both maternal cardiovascular health and fetal development. That was what led her to WCHRI 15 years ago.
“The power of partnership,” Davidge said when asked what WCHRI means. “The community support that we get in order to support an underrepresented area of women and children research.”
“Women and children’s health affects all of us,” Fisher added. “It is great that the U of A, through WCHRI, is taking such a leading role in this area.”
Through the years WCHRI has supported a wide variety of research that is focussed on enhancing women and children’s health. This has been possible through supporting start-ups, ongoing research, graduate and summer scholarships, research grants, and travel awards.
When asked about the importance of research in women and children’s health, Davidge mentioned the “unique and distinct needs of women and children.”
“We need WCHRI to really advocate and study and do the research to understand the unique and distinct health needs to have better health care for our population,” Davidge added. “Early life exposure whether in the utero during pregnancy or early life exposure [after birth] can have an effect on chronic diseases in both male and females.”
WCHRI has supported research that has led to advances in the fields of mental health during pregnancy and postpartum, ovarian cancer, the development of new national guidelines around pregnancy, growing placentas in a petri dish to study, and developing possible therapeutic approaches for some of the complications that may arise during pregnancy — something that would not be safe to do in pregnant women.
“I think the biggest breakthrough for children and for women has been the fact that we, as an institute, have been able to attract the best researchers here to Edmonton,” Davidge said. “Building overall capacity in women and children’s health research and training the next generation has made us the most impactful.”
WCHRI has members in 14 different faculties across campus and over 430 members.
“They all cover a diverse range of women and children’s health. There are so many incredible researchers at the U of A that are supported through WCHRI,” Fisher said. “In the past 15 years we’ve also funded over 300 undergraduate and graduate students, so we are not only investing in current researchers, we are also investing in the next generation of researchers.”
WCHRI’s successes over the year has come with different challenges. When asked about it, Davidge mentioned “getting the word out.”
“[The] unique and distinct needs of women have often been ignored and we actually don’t know as much as we should,” Davidge added. “We are changing that — the challenges have been really about making sure we are communicating the importance of women and children’s health.”
“Women and children’s health are generally under-resourced and underrepresented within health research and getting the word out there that women and children’s health research is important has been challenging, but it’s been an exciting opportunity as well,” Fisher said.
According to Davidge and Fisher, many tend to diminish the importance of something that does not directly affect them. This is why women and children’s health research is often left behind, and it is what WCHRI is trying to change in our mindsets. Research about women and children matter because the outcomes during pregnancy and early developmental periods can directly impact everyone through to adulthood and that includes us all as a population.
“The greatest impact has been to have the researchers here, so that the people in our community here in Edmonton and at the U of A can actually have frontline evidence for how they are being cared for,” Davidge said. “The capacity building we’ve built here in women and children’s health, that actually supports our community.”
“We’ve grown so much over the years and because of that we’ve grown our portfolio research. We have research in so many different areas in women and children’s health that has really grown our focus which is why growing capacity has become so important to us,” Fisher added.
Reflecting on the years to come, WCHRI advocacy for women and children’s research health is looking to keep moving forward breaking down the barriers and transforming the life of women, children, and society as a whole.
“Precision health is where we are targeting into the future — having the right medicine for the right person at the right time is critical,” Davidge said. “Machine learning as well, it is part of the new age data and we have a new data system in the province, and we’ll be able to build an understanding.”
“We are also looking into expanding research within Indigenous health, as well as children’s mental health,” Fisher added.
According to Davidge, the innovative research supported by WCHRI would not be possible if not for the generosity of its founders.
“We really thank the founders and the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation and the Alberta Women Health Foundation in support of the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute; we would not exist without this partnership and that includes Alberta Health Services and the University of Alberta,” Davidge said.