Deborah Kurrasch leads one of only a handful of labs in the world — that she knows of — who are working on establishing an exact developmental link between prenatal maternal health or environmental toxins and brain abnormalities in children.
Her research at the University of Calgary’s Medical Genetics department has human implications, but right now has her observing minute changes in the brains of mice and zebra fish, specifically changes to neural development in the brain region known as the hypothalamus.
Multiple studies have shown a link between maternal health conditions, such as obesity, diabetes or stress, and a high risk of developmental abnormality in offspring, but explanations for why this happens has, until now, relied on inference. Kurrasch wants to know the precise mechanism. In other words, how exactly does prenatal neural development change in response to stressful conditions of any kind?
It’s what Kurrasch refers to as the “black box,” and no one has ever tried to see inside before.
Having arrived in Calgary only three years ago from California, Kurrasch has already made a big impact. She developed her own lab, underwritten by about $1.6 million in grants. In the short time the lab has been operating, it has conducted research resulting in four published papers with another underway for the "Journal of Neuroscience". Kurrasch has also presented papers at five major conferences (two international, three national), and has been invited to write a review for "Clinical Genetics".
For the most part, though she’s called an assistant professor, Kurrasch doesn’t teach classes. As a researcher, her teaching is mostly confined to training graduate students and post-doctoral fellows working in her lab. She occasionally teaches highly specialized courses at a very high level and of short duration.
In addition, Kurrasch has become the unofficial guidance counsellor for the numerous graduate students and post-doctoral fellows for whom there are no jobs in their chosen field, and she finds it very rewarding to help them transition successfully into the private-sector careers that may not seem directly relevant to their expertise at first.
When asked what conclusions can be reached from her work so far, Kurrasch admits it’s too soon to tell. “But I think we are on to something,” she says. “I am definitely excited by what we’re doing.”