People Profiles

Ashley Monks, PhD, Psychology

November 12, 2015

Hormones. They are the one messaging system we use even more than email and yet we know very little about how they operate. Dr. Ashley Monks is changing that.

Monks completed a PhD in Psychology at SFU in 2001 and is currently a professor at the University of Toronto's Department of Psychology with a cross appointment in cell and systems biology. His doctoral research at SFU was recognized by the Governor General’s Gold Medal for graduate students and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Doctoral Prize.

Monk’s research explores the role and impact of sex hormones on an area that has not been fully explored within the bio-psychology field: muscle development and the nervous system. Sex hormones coordinate development, physiology and behavior with reproduction.

“My research seeks to understand how sex hormones shape the nervous system and the organization of the brain, and ultimately to uncover the biological basis behind what makes men and women different and how that actually works," he says.

In 2014, Monks was part of a team that helped unravel a great mammalian mystery: how Arctic ground squirrels are able to pack on up to 30 per cent more muscle mass without experiencing any of the negative side-effects that would accompany a similar increase in the human body. Their findings, which attracted coverage by CBC News, showed that the secret lay in the distribution of the rodent’s testosterone receptors.

But it's not all fuzzy tails and tundra. Monks’ work has uncovered new insights into how sex hormones operate in the human body. In addition to Adam’s apples and hair growth, his research demonstrated that steroids influence the brain’s biochemistry by regulating a class of molecules which are responsible for making cells stick together.

While helping create new understanding around the biological processes that inform gender at a fundamental level, Monks says that his research may lead to new and more effective treatments for muscle disorders. These include spinal and bulbar muscular atrophy, also known as Kennedy's disease.

“My research is changing people’s minds about how to approach Kennedy’s disease by shifting the focus from motor neurons to muscles," he says.

While Monks credits the discoveries he has made in the field of biological psychology to the thriving international research community, he also points to his experience as a doctoral student at SFU: “I really enjoyed the freedom the psychology program offered. I had enough structure to get the training I needed but there was an appreciation that each student was different. They allowed us to pursue our own development instead of trying to mold us into some predetermined end-product.”  

Monks is now using that training to shed new light on how our bodies shape us, and indeed, how we might shape them in return.

Author: Jackie Amsden

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