Nadine Provençal, assistant professor in SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences and investigator at the BC Children’s Hospital.

Faculty and Staff

Newly named global scholar to further study 'how stress gets under skin' of children

August 12, 2020
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Nadine Provençal, an assistant professor in SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences and an investigator at the BC Children’s Hospital, is among 13 researchers named to the 2020-2022 cohort of CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars.

The CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars program supports outstanding early-career researchers through mentorship, a global network, professional skills development, and $100,000 over the next two years to support their research. Provençal will further her study of how social stress early in life “gets under the skin” of young children and changes children’s brain and behavioral development. It’s also a key risk factor for behaviour issues and psychiatric disease.

“As a CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar, I look forward to receiving invaluable training to further develop my leadership and communication skills,” says Provençal, who joins CIFAR’s Child and Brain Development research program.

“I am also eager to interact with world-class leaders and other scholars of the program to develop innovative interdisciplinary research avenues to better understand and improve children’s development.”

Provençal says little is known about how an individual’s health can be affected years after the initial exposure to social stress.

Her previous research found that prenatal stress not only impacted a mother’s health, but also that of her developing fetus. Excessive stress experienced by a mother during pregnancy can be passed on to her child via marks on their genes, which could explain why some children are more vulnerable to stress later in their development.

“My current work aims to determine the molecular sequence of events leading to these epigenetic marks on one’s genes after exposure to excessive stress hormones during brain development,” she explains. “I am also developing biomarkers to help track how stress impacts children’s development and response to social intervention programs, to help inform on their effectiveness in the long run.”

Provençal’s passion for science developed from an undergraduate course she took in molecular biology, which led her to combine her interests to study human genetics and child psychology. Through her research, her main motivation is to help children thrive. By better understanding the origins of mental health disorders, she hopes to decrease the number of children and adults suffering from these illnesses.

“With a better understanding of how the environment, especially our social environment, shapes the development of our brain and behaviour, we can better develop and focus our efforts on prevention and intervention strategies that diminish or reverse its detrimental effects.”