FHS PhD candidate Amanda Rowlands won the Phyllis Eveleth Award for outstanding poster presentation at the recent 2024 meeting of the Human Biology Association in Los Angeles

FHS PhD candidate's innovative research recognized with award

May 22, 2024

by Sharon Mah

Faculty of Health Sciences PhD candidate Amanda Rowlands has a new award to add to her collection: she received the Phyllis Eveleth Award for outstanding poster presentation at the most recent annual meeting of the Human Biology Association (HBA) in Los Angeles this past April.

Rowlands’ poster, “Changes in stress axis and metabolic energy patterns from pre- to post-menarche in a group of Mayan girls– A preliminary analysis” is a subset of her PhD research which examines the impacts of stress and energetic availability on the reproductive outcomes of adolescent girls belonging to the Kaqchikel Mayan Indigenous people in Guatemala. Her work is part of a broad, long-term longitudinal project undertaken by FHS professor Pablo Nepomnaschy who leads the Maternal and Child Health Laboratory at SFU.

“I really enjoyed putting this poster together because I feel like this is the most interesting and exciting part of my research,” says Rowlands. For this specific investigation, she used hormone biomarkers to measure stress levels in Kaqchikel Mayan girls before and after their first menstrual cycle or menarche. The onset of the first period is a reproductive developmental benchmark and a measurable physiological indicator that a girl’s ovarian function has begun. Rowlands compared an individual’s pre-menarche stress levels to their post-menarche stress levels by measuring cortisol, a  stress hormone produced by the girls. She then correlated the observed stress biomarkers to other factors (e.g., social / immune / energetic stress, access to resources) during the girls’ transition into reproductive maturity, to gauge whether these factors influenced or impacted the onset of ovarian function.

Rowlands’ work in this area is potentially a game-changer as previous approaches to collecting data on stress impacts relied on the use of repeated surveys or self-reports to measure stress, which can be subjective and variable to interpret. Rowlands’ research demonstrated that biomarkers can be a consistent tool for measuring stress physiologically, reducing the need for interpretation of survey data, and potentially increasing the robustness of the linkages between stress and environmental stressors in these types of physiological studies.

“I had some really positive, good conversations with people that came up to my poster [at the HBA meeting],” recalls Rowlands, noting that the data she collected linking changes in individual stress levels to energy levels has not been commonly seen up to this point. “People always get excited when there are significant results.”

When asked about how receiving this award has impacted her, Rowlands relays that it’s been a thrill for her to have won this award as she prepares the final chapters of her dissertation. “[My research] has all come together in the last couple months. Getting to present it and then winning a conference award is so validating that your work is important enough, that it is meaningful, and that [I] was able to communicate and present why it's important in a clear way.”