Nicole C. Woitowich's picture

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Dr. Nicole Woitowich is the Associate Director for the Women’s Health Research Institute at Northwestern University. She is actively transforming the landscape of women’s health through her research, advocacy, and outreach activities. She implements programming which informs the scientific and medical communities, as well as the public, about the influences of sex and gender on health and disease. In addition, Dr. Woitowich serves as the Director for the Illinois Women’s Health Registry, which promotes the participation of women in clinical research and evaluates state-wide women’s health trends. As a former Presidential Management Fellow awardee, she remains politically active and advocates on behalf of women’s health research. In 2018, she drafted legislation to recognize January 25th as National Women’s Health Research Day which was introduced in Congress by Sen. Duckworth and Rep. Schakowsky, and locally endorsed by Mayor Emanuel. While formally trained as biochemist, her current research explores the impact of science policy on research practices and gender biases in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medical (STEMM) fields. Dr. Woitowich has held a long-standing interest in the advancement and retention of women in the STEMM pipeline and has created programs both at Northwestern University and beyond to this end.  In 2015, she was nominated to serve as a member of the Public Outreach Committee for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, due to her ability to communicate science to diverse audiences and her passion for making science publicly accessible. Through this role, she served as a co-organizer for SciOut18, the first national meeting of science outreach practitioners in the United States. 

My Blog Posts

Posted by on July 18, 2016 - 3:30pm

Biomarkers are proteins or small molecules which can be measured in order to diagnose conditions, identify disease, track disease progression, or monitor therapeutic interventions.  Some examples of biomarkers include the hormone human chorionic gonadotropin, a biomarker for pregnancy, and the protein prostate specific antigen, a biomarker for prostate cancer. The identification of new biomarkers has beneficial clinical implications, yet it can often be challenging to discover reliable and reproducible biomarkers from the research perspective.

 Sex may play an important factor in the variability of biomarkers within a clinical setting as sex hormones, such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, may alter the amount of biomarkers present in the blood. A study published in the journal Scientific Reports, analyzed the levels of over 170 protein and small molecule biomarkers in men and women with varying hormonal status [1]. This includes women in the follicular phase or luteal phase of the menstrual cycle, women who were post-menopausal, utilizing hormone replacement therapy, or taking oral contraceptives. The study authors found that concentration of 56% of biomarkers varied between men and women. Furthermore, the concentration of 38% of biomarkers varied between female hormonal status.  Together, these results call into question the validity and reproducibility of these biomarkers in a clinical context.

 Some of the biomarkers analyzed in this study are proposed to diagnose cancer, schizophrenia, and major depressive disorder. Therefore, the observed sex and hormonal status differences found in this study highlight the necessity to incorporate sex-specific controls when developing clinical markers in order to prevent false positive or negative results.  Taking sex-based differences and hormonal status into account in any research endeavor will lead to better clinical translation and efficacy for all. 

 Source:

  1. Ramsey et al., Scientific Reports. 2016; 6:26947.
Posted by on July 13, 2016 - 2:47pm

by Nicole C. Woitowich, PhD

I am what you might stereotype as a “girly girl.” I love everything that comes in pink, I have seen the movie Legally Blonde more times than I would like to admit, and whatever Taylor Swift song is popular at the moment is probably my “jam.”

 I am also a biochemist.

 Are these things mutually exclusive? Do women need to hide their love for bold colors, high heels, and pop culture in order to be taken seriously as a scientist? Apparently so, according to many blogs and articles written by other female scientists. Their advice ranges from keeping makeup natural, to wearing dark colors to look more authoritative, or adding “soft touches” such as scarves if you must feel “feminine.”

 The worst part is, their advice isn’t entirely wrong. A recent study by Dr. Sarah Banchefsky and colleagues at the University of Colorado Boulder asked participants to rank photos, unbeknownst to them of real scientists, on their gendered appearance (masculine or feminine) and career likelihood (scientist or early childhood educator). They found that the more feminine a woman appeared, the less likely she was deemed to be a scientist.

 Together with the current climate in the scientific workforce where women are under-represented in leadership roles and tenured faculty, I almost understand why women would want to “tone it down,” and adopt the dress and social behaviors of their male peers.

 Banchefsky, lead author of the study, provides some insight, “We all, to a certain degree, adapt and conform to fit into the environment around us and avoid having people ask questions or look at us askance. I think women do this to be taken seriously, to avoid being asked, ‘Are you really a scientist?’”

 Furthermore, she adds, “…men serve as the power holders and gate-keepers in [STEM] fields, so women work hard to and want to be a part of their circle. Unfortunately, women’s assimilation reinforces the masculine culture in STEM.”

 Hiding or limiting femininity may impart damaging consequences on young and aspiring scientists as well. According to Banchefsky, “If [young women] have in their mind that first, women aren’t typically in science, and when they are, they need to be gender-neutral or non-feminine -  they may worry that they won’t be able to express part of who they are [through] their gender identity in a science field.”

  “I think it’s important to highlight that it just doesn’t have to be this way,” Banchefsky states, and I completely agree.

 To this end, I will continue to match my pink goggles to my outfit and wear pink nitrile gloves because it makes me feel more like “me.” So when young women visit the laboratory they can see that a scientist can be whomever she wants to be.

 Source: Banchefsky et al., Sex Roles. 2016; Epub ahead of print. 

 

Posted by on July 11, 2016 - 8:35am

A recent study published in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine found that sex-differences exist in emergency room evaluation and treatment times for patients presenting with a heart attack [1]. The retrospective study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania analyzed treatment times for over 250 patients with confirmed heart attacks. The study authors found that women, on average, wait 3 minutes longer to receive an initial EKG than men. Additionally, women wait 7 minutes longer than men for a heart attack treatment protocol to be activated, with the total average time being 25.5 minutes for women and 18.5 minutes for men. Current recommendations suggest that anyone presenting with a suspected heart attack should be evaluated and a treatment protocol initiated in less than 20 minutes [2]. Thus, women may be subject to additional heart damage as time passes without intervention.

According to the American Heart Association, women may experience a wide variety of symptoms during a heart attack which can include:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Pain in the arms, jaw, back or stomach
  • Nausea or vomiting

 However, the most common symptom is chest pain or discomfort which is experienced by both men and women. It may be possible that sex-based bias exists in the initial diagnosis of heart attacks as evidence by this research. Additional studies which explore sex-differences within evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of heart attacks and other cardiovascular disease may promote enhanced survival for both men and women.

 To learn more about the signs and symptoms of heart attacks in women check out the following video by the American Heart Association which was directed by, and stars Elizabeth Banks: It’s Just a Little Heart Attack.  

 Sources:

  1. Choi et al., Am J Emerg Med. 2016; EPub ahead of print.
  2. McCabe et al., Circ Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes. 2012; 5(5):672-9.
  3. American Heart Association
Posted by on June 29, 2016 - 7:53am

This year, the Summer Olympics are scheduled to be held in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, throughout the month of August. However, several athletes, coaches, staff, and journalists have decided to stay home this year, citing concerns for Zika virus infection. Brazil is currently experiencing a Zika virus outbreak with over 148,00 suspected cases of Zika virus disease as of May 2016 [1]. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Zika virus disease is spread through the bite of an infected mosquito and can cause symptoms such as fever, rash, and joint pain. While in a healthy individual, Zika virus disease may only cause a mild illness, less is known about its effects in the elderly, immunocompromised, and those with underlying health problems. Perhaps most concerning is the risk of associated birth defects, such as microcephaly, which can occur if a pregnant woman is infected with Zika virus. Furthermore, it has recently been shown that Zika virus can be transmitted through sexual contact. This has left many individuals scheduled to travel to Brazil concerned for the health of themselves and their families.

Savannah Guthrie, a TV journalist who is currently pregnant, has reported that she will not be attending the Olympics due to concerns for the Zika virus [3]. Additionally, professional golfer Rory McIlroy has stated the same [4]. Those who do plan on traveling to the Olympic games, such as U.S. men’s volleyball coach John Speraw, are taking numerous precautions to avoid Zika virus. Speraw plans wearing long sleeves, staying indoors, and as an extra measure of precaution, he will freeze his sperm prior to the Olympics in the event that he contracts the virus while in Brazil [5].

The CDC recommends that all individuals traveling to Brazil practice enhanced precautions which include:

  • Covering all exposed skin with long sleeved shirts and pants
  • Applying insect repellent containing DEET
  • Pre-treating clothes with the repellant permethrin
  • Staying indoors in air-conditioning

To date, no mosquito-borne transmission of Zika virus has been reported in the United States. However, as of June 22nd, there are 820 confirmed cases of individuals living in the U.S. who have contracted the virus while travelling abroad. If you plan on travelling abroad or to other U.S. territories this summer, check with the CDC for travel health notices and updates for local precautions.

 Sources:

  1. Pan American Health Organization Epidemiological Update
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  3. New York Times
  4. ESPN
  5. New York Times
Posted by on June 27, 2016 - 8:33am

For some women, the onset of menopause can be fraught with unpleasant symptoms such as hot flashes, night sweats and vaginal dryness. If a woman wishes to avoid or is not a candidate for hormone replacement therapy, lifestyle and dietary modifications may provide some relief. Last week, an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association analyzed the results of over 62 studies which examined the use and effectiveness of plant-based therapies on menopausal symptom relief [1]. The authors found that use of phytoestrogen-containing foods and dietary supplements may reduce hot flashes and vaginal dryness but not night sweats.

Phytoestrogens are naturally-occurring compounds found in plants which have a similar chemical structure to the hormone estrogen. When ingested, phytoestrogens can mimic, albeit to a lesser extent, the actions of estrogen since they “look alike” to our bodies. Phytoestrogens can be found in various fruits, vegetables, and even wine. Soybeans, in particular, have a high phytoestrogen content. For some individuals, there is increasing evidence that consuming soy-based products may provide relief from menopausal symptoms [1,2].

 Because phytoestrogens have estrogen-like properties, it was thought that consuming food which contained high amounts of phytoestrogens, such as soy, could increase your risk for breast cancer. However, there is no concrete evidence which suggests that this is true. So if you are looking for a natural approach to curb your menopause symptoms, increasing phytoestrogen-rich foods in your diet may be a safe and healthy alternative.

 

Sources:

  1. Franco et al., JAMA. 2016; 315(23):2554-2563.
  2. Patisaul and Jefferson, Front Neruoendcrinol. 2010; 31(4):400-419. 
Posted by on June 17, 2016 - 9:14am

Recently, the use of talcum powder has become a controversial issue as growing evidence suggests that its use may be related to an increased risk of ovarian cancer. Talcum powder, also known as talc, is a mineral composed of the elements magnesium, silicon, and oxygen. As a common household product, talcum powder can be used as an antiperspirant or in the application of cosmetics. Because of its ability to absorb moisture it may be applied to sensitive areas of the body, such as the genitals, to prevent chaffing.

A new study published in the journal Epidemiology, analyzed the use of talcum powder in over 4,000 women with and without ovarian cancer. The authors found that use of talcum powder in the genital region may increase a woman’s risk for ovarian cancer by 33%, especially in instances where the powder was used daily.

More research is necessary to determine how talcum powder causes cancer. In the meantime, the American Cancer Society suggests that it may be prudent to avoid or limit use of products containing talc, if you are concerned about developing ovarian cancer.  

Although the overall lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer is low, it is one of the most deadly gynecological cancers. Therefore it is important to recognize some of the major signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer for early detection and diagnosis.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Lower abdominal pain or pressure
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Abnormal periods
  • Gas, nausea, or vomiting
  • Trouble eating or feeling “full” after eating

While these symptoms may be associated with other benign conditions, it is always important to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your doctor.

 

Sources:
Cramer et al., Epidemiology. 2016;27: 334–346.1
American Cancer Society
National Library of Medicine

 1Two authors of the study have received compensation related to ongoing litigation regarding ovarian cancer. 

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