Ellen Francis, a doctoral candidate in the Applied Health Research and Evaluation program within the Department of Public Health Sciences at Clemson University, is a winner of the American Society for Nutrition’s (ASN) Emerging Leaders in Nutrition Science Competition. Also, a predoctoral Intramural Research Training Award fellow at Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), National Institutes of Health (NIH), Francis’s research on gestational diabetes was the winning abstract in one of 23 research areas.
“It’s exciting. I’m finishing up my dissertation, and it’s like the end of a marathon. This award is motivating me to push through to the finish line,” Francis said. “It’s really great to represent the department of public health sciences and NICHD. It’s great to show what these programs can train students to do.”
More than 1,000 abstracts were submitted by students and postdoctoral fellows to the Emerging Leaders in Nutrition Science Competition, which aims to recognize the top 10% highest scoring abstracts as finalists, according to ASN. Abstracts were rated by more than 500 nutrition scientists. All finalists competed in a poster competition on June 8.
Public Health Sciences professor Sarah Griffin said she and the Public Health Sciences Department at Clemson are proud of Francis for her winning research.
“Her work and accomplishments are a shining example of how doctoral students in our program develop and apply their research skills to better understand and help solve some of our most pressing health issues,” Griffin said.
Francis’s winning abstract is titled “A Longitudinal Study of a Panel of Adipokines and Gestational Diabetes Risk.” During her time at NICHD, Francis has been working on this project with investigators from Dr. Cuilin Zhang’s team at NICHD, which includes researchers from University of Pennsylvania and University of California at Los Angeles.
As part of the Graduate Partnerships Program (GPP), which helps prepare NIH graduate students to become leaders in the scientific research community, she works in the Epidemiology Branch, an intramural research program within the Division of Intramural Population Health Research at NICHD. The Branch’s mission is to conduct original research focusing on human reproduction, pregnancy and maternal and child health.
Her research has focused on investigating how early life exposures, such as nutritional markers and exposure to metabolic disorders in utero, are associated with cardiometabolic risk factors.
She began this research at Clemson University under the mentorship of Dr. Liwei Chen, and then continued it at NICHD/NIH under the mentorship of Zhang, whose research focus is on the epidemiology, etiology, and health consequences of diabetes and obesity based on a life course approach.
Within Francis’s research, she’s working to identify biomarkers that could be useful for gestational diabetes screening from anywhere between the 10-week prenatal appointment to even before pregnancy. Typically, screening is done between 24-28 weeks of pregnancy, Francis said, and by then the mother and child have been exposed to factors that could increase their risk for adverse health outcomes.
“Gestational diabetes is a relatively common pregnancy complication, and it has both short- and long-term impacts on the mom and baby,” Francis said. “It can lead to an increased risk for the child to battle obesity, and the mother has an elevated risk for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and hypertension.”
In her research entered into the ASN competition, Francis examined a comprehensive panel of adipokines, which are hormones secreted from fat tissue that are associated with blood sugar regulation, and that hadn’t been looked at before in early pregnancy for screening GDM. She found that several novel adipokines related to inflammation, insulin sensitivity, and lipid metabolism, were prospectively related to the risk of gestational diabetes. Francis said her research is just a small piece of research on the identification of biomarkers implicated in the cause of gestational diabetes.
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