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Familiarity breeds contentment

By Alisa Kim  •  Jul 17, 2017

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Student volunteer puts her skills to use at Sunnybrook Research Institute

Midday on clear and warm weekdays, you’ll find employees of Sunnybrook scattered along its grounds, eating lunch with colleagues or reading on their cell phones. Kelsey Eakin, a summer student at Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI), spends her lunch hour running through the scenic ravines that border the hospital’s midtown campus.

“I’m not used to sitting this long. I need to get out and do something,” says Eakin, who is going into her second year of undergrad at Queen’s University.

Her work involves collecting and analyzing data, and conducting clinical interviews—in other words, a lot of sitting. But that doesn’t mean the research, which is supervised by SRI scientist Dr. Walter Swardfager, is a boring desk job. “I like it. It’s very interesting,” says Eakin, who is majoring in computer science. “I like the people side of it—recruiting and talking to patients. I help recruit them from Toronto Rehab and the diabetes program at Sunnybrook.”

Eakin, who has been at SRI since May, is contributing to a study on diabetes, exercise, mood and cognition. The research is a collaboration between SRI and Toronto Rehabilitation Institute. The goal is to assess blood biomarkers, cognition and mood in people with Type 2 diabetes who are enrolled in a six-month exercise program. Her task is to compare biomarkers in the blood of people with and without diabetes. Using a database of about 120 participants, Eakin is matching demographic characteristics of people with and without the condition so that, in examining the biomarkers, the researchers are comparing apples with apples. “We want to see if chemicals in the blood—ceramides and, more broadly, sphingolipids—are predictive of their mood and cognitive outcomes,” she says.

She goes on to explain the rationale for the research. “There’s some research that’s been done to show that different changes in these chemicals have different effects. So, for example, they’ve found that it’s related to a lot of issues, particularly with metabolism. So we want to see if that applies to diabetes since diabetes is also a metabolism disease.” By analyzing blood biomarkers, the researchers will try to determine how the metabolic pathways affected by Type 2 diabetes interfere with the benefits of exercise. Understanding the dysregulation of these pathways is critical, given the prevalence of the disease, whereby the body makes but cannot properly use insulin. (In Type 1 diabetes the body makes no or little insulin.) Each year, there are more than 60,000 new cases of Type 2 diabetes in Canada; moreover, nine out of 10 people with diabetes have the Type 2 version.

Eakin is also working on a study that evaluates over six months the changes in mood and cognition in people with diabetes. She was trained by a graduate student in Swardfager’s lab to interview participants for mood and cognitive assessments. Here, the aim is to understand the impact that problems with thinking and state of mind have on daily function. Through the work on biomarkers, the researchers aim to identify which metabolic pathways contribute to these symptoms.

The placement, which runs until the end of August, has provided Eakin with diverse training. “I’m definitely broadening my statistics knowledge,” she says. Giving an example, she says, “There are different types of tests you can run on data, and then you look for things that could skew your result or make it less valid. One thing that we look for are co-variates—things that might also be playing a role in the results you’re seeing without being a cause-effect-type thing.”

While she is new to research, Eakin is no stranger to Sunnybrook. For two years she has worked as a volunteer through the organization Therapeutic Paws of Canada. Each week, she and her beloved poodle, Tilley, visit the residents of the veteran’s facility. “They love her—they have a poster of her on the wall—and she loves the attention even more,” she says.

Unlike previous jobs, which have steered her away from certain fields, Eakin says the studentship has reinforced her interest in research. “It’s definitely a good experience. This job is independent. You’re given guidance, but you also have to figure things out a little bit, too. Compared to other jobs where you’re given single tasks, this is more of a ‘bigger picture.’”

Kelsey Eakin received a D+H Summer Studentship Award.