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October 2010
 
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St. Catherine faculty focus on the female body and mind, taking the University's mission - and scientific research - a step further.

An Eye on Women

eaching graduate students is a far cry from listening to stories about beatings and verbal abuse at the hands of a spouse. Just ask Catherine Marrs Fuchsel, St. Catherine University assistant professor of social work.

Before joining the St. Kate's faculty, Fuchsel worked for six years as a clinical social worker in Phoenix, Arizona. Her clients were largely undocumented immigrant Mexican women between the ages of 20 and 60. They had crossed the border from rural parts of Mexico to live the American dream.

Each woman who spoke to Fuchsel was either depressed or anxious, or both.

"They weren't coming in saying, 'My husband hits me' or 'He is emotionally abusing me.' Instead they were saying, 'I don't feel good,' 'I can't sleep at night' or 'my stomach hurts,'" says Fuchsel, who hails from Peru and speaks fluent Spanish. "It wasn't until the second or third month of practice that I put two-and-two together. Everything they were telling me, including, 'I'm yelling at my kids too much,' was related to violence at home with their husband."

She enrolled herself in training programs with the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence and began incorporating questions about violence into her conversations with the women. "And in my heart," Fuchsel says, "I promised I would tell their story."

Today, in her work at St. Catherine University, she's incorporated these women's stories into a groundbreaking domestic violence prevention model that she hopes will be used statewide.

Fuchsel isn't alone in her focus of study at St. Kate's. Given the University's emphasis on education for women, it's only natural that professors are committed to research that looks at women's health and well-being. St. Kate's researchers understand the important role women play in society. Unlike researchers at other institutions who continue to focus on male bodies and behavior, they want to insure that women are equally protected.

In fact, three St. Kate's professors are helping to establish a Women's Health Integrative Research Center at the St. Paul campus in early 2011. "We won't ignore men, certainly," says Associate Professor of Biology Marcie Myers. "But we now understand how important it is to determine whether sex matters when developing new understanding."

Here is a sample of St. Catherine faculty and alumnae who are championing research on women — and offering hope for the future of womankind.

The Mother

Myers, who is also Endowed Professor in the Sciences, has long been interested in the ways women have carried loads on their bodies and how that extra weight affects their movement. Her limb-loading study for her master's thesis in 1983 had participants run with weights attached to their ankles, calves and thighs. It was one of the first studies in the nation to look at how many calories we burn when moving our legs with weights.

More recently, Myers' studies have focused on children as the load. In August, she collaborated with four St. Kate's seniors — Kelsey Boeff, Melvina Kpanquoi, Anna Myhre and Laura Stearns — to compare how women and men carried infants or toddlers on their hip and shoulders.

"It's hard to think of something that's more universal than carrying children, especially for women," Myers says. "Yet, very few studies are done on how that affects their muscular-skeletal system and energy use."

This was the first time that Myers included male subjects in a child-carrying study. She had noticed that men tend to carry children on their shoulders, while women often carry kids on their hips. Myers herself often carried her daughter, now 8, on her shoulders when coming home from long walks — because it felt the most economical.

"Jutting out your hip to support a child is really not good for your spine," Myers says. "But women do this a lot. They don't tend to put their kids on their shoulders as much — possibly because they're concerned about the safety of the baby or they don't get to look at the baby and interact with it. Or they might not be strong enough to lift the child up there."

Myers and her team recruited six men and six women to carry Jordy, a 22-pound mannequin designed to sit on shoulders and lean forward the way a toddler would. At each of four different walking speeds, the participants took randomly determined turns walking Jordy on their shoulders or hips — or walking with a comparably heavy load wrapped evenly around their waists (the most economical way to carry extra mass).

"We wanted to find out if shoulder-carrying is in fact calorically cheaper than hip-carrying — and whether that differs between women and men," Myers explains. "So we measured strength in our participants as well as changes in posture and walking patterns."

Some findings have emerged. "Men found the hip-carrying to be the most uncomfortable while women complained the most about shoulder-carrying and often needed help hoisting Jordy onto their shoulders," she says. No one liked walking fast and carrying Jordy in any position — explaining why that behavior is rare.

Next summer, Myers wants to compare how different baby-carrying devices, like slings, side supports and backpacks, alter posture and walking patterns — as well as how much energy a woman expends in carrying children.

The female friend

During her time at St. Kate's, Courtney Wells '06 made many new friends, but only one truly understood the killer joint pains she was experiencing because of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. That woman, also a psychology major, had severe headaches due to a brain aneurysm.

There is something unique about the social support women receive from other women.

"There were days when it was physically very difficult for us to be in class, yet we were there and so engaged in the coursework and discussions," says Wells, who was also majoring in French and completing coursework for pre-med. "It seems funny now, but we bonded over having pretty serious pain and succeeding in school."

During Wells' junior year, Associate Professor of Psychology Lynda Szymanski assigned students to read an article about health psychology pioneer Shelley Taylor's study on how women tend to reach out to and nurture one another when life gets hard. That prompted Wells to approach Szymanski about collaborating on a research project.

"Courtney was really interested in the topic of resiliency, and I was interested in how she and her friend — two women dealing with such adversity — were able to thrive," recalls Szymanski, now associate dean of the School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences. "So, we decided to look at one component of Shelley Taylor's 'tend-and-befriend' model. The befriend piece provided us with a basis for our hypothesis that social support, especially social support from women, will contribute to women's resiliency."

Szymanski and Wells recruited women ages 21 to 54 from St. Kate's Weekend Program to test their hypotheses; 57 completed an online survey that asked them to rate how much they agreed with statements such as "I can count on my female friends when things go wrong" and "I have female friends with whom I can share my joys and sorrows." The participants could provide written comments as well about their friendships.

"Women who reported more social support from other women had higher resiliency scores than the women who had high levels of perceived social support only from men," Szymanski says. And when the researchers compiled the comments, 53 percent were positive about female support and 13 percent were positive about male support.

"We can conclude that there is something unique about the social support women received from other women," she says. "This doesn't mean that the social support women receive from men is bad or not helpful. It's just different."

Explained one participant "Male support is like icing on the cake after female support bakes the cake."

The researchers also found that women who relied on task-oriented coping — such as writing a to-do list — were more resilient than those who relied on emotion-oriented coping, such as "talk therapy" with friends or family.

Researchers concluded that both problem-solving and stress-management strategies should be included in support programs for women, and that those programs should emphasize the importance of female support systems.

"This study really made us think about the role of female social support and how we can extend that to help women we know are facing adversity, such as breast cancer," Szymanski adds. "We found that female social support is predictive of resiliency, and we want women to be as resilient as possible regardless of what adversity they're facing."

Carol Goulet '09 and Tom Thieman, a psychology professor at St. Kate's, helped with the study. It has been presented at two national conferences — as a poster titled "Women Should Spend More Time with Their Female Friends." This year, they will submit their study for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

"We were being light-hearted when we named the poster, but there's truth to that title," Szymanski explains. "You're not wasting time when you spend time with your girlfriends. Get rid of that guilt. Friendship is important, and friendship between two women seems to be especially important."

The battered woman

Abuse comes in many forms, and social work professor Catherine Marrs Fuchsel can name them all. Her research has revolved around violence in marriage, particularly related to immigrant Mexican women who initially did not know the term domestic violence — but had other words to describe their situation.

"As they live longer in the United States, these women are more aware of domestic violence and the services available to them," says Fuchsel, a clinical social worker and a counselor for victims of domestic violence.

Leaving their husbands, however, often isn't an option.

"Certain cultural elements in the Latino community may contribute to violence or make it more difficult and challenging for a woman to reach out for help," Fuchsel says. These include familism, the notion that family ranks above everything; machismo, the idea that men are superior and dominant; and marianismo, the female counterpart to machismo that calls for women to be selfless, submissive mothers and wives.

Fuchsel has developed a three-part domestic violence prevention model that encourages the immigrant Mexican woman — and other female victims of abuse — to take stock of who she is and what she wants out of an intimate partnership before entering into it.

"Seven out of the nine women in my study were sexually abused as children or teenagers," Fuchsel says. "This trauma impacted their understanding of who they were as adult women and what it meant for them to be in a healthy relationship. They didn't know what healthy meant. In fact, a lot of them accepted the abuse as just part of marriage and thought, 'I have to engage in sexual activity even though I don't want to because my husband wants to.'"

In Phoenix, Fuchsel conducted domestic violence training for pastoral staff and parishioners of a Catholic church, and introduced domestic violence workshops in its marriage preparation program for the Hispanic community.

Fuchsel, who commutes to St Kate's from her home in Rochester, wants to test her prevention model in greater Minnesota by partnering with a diocese and agencies that are migrant-friendly. (The population of Mexico is 85 percent Catholic, she explains, "so the Church is a place of refuge for them.")

"My hope is that, with prevention strategies either in social service agencies or the Catholic Church," she says, "immigrant Mexican women can gain an increased understanding of what a healthy relationship can look like within their own cultural realm."

The skinny woman

Being thin doesn't equal being sexy. But our culture tells women that it does. Thin female models sashay the runways in New York and Paris. They appear on TV and in fashion catalogs. And the skinniest of all — inspired by Kate Moss or Twiggy, in an earlier era — land on covers of popular women's magazines.

We know that exposure to thin models lowers self-esteem in most women.

Former psychology department chair Lynda Szymanski, and John Pellegrini, biology professor and department chair, recently wrapped up a 3M-funded study that looked at the emotional and physiological responses of women to images of thin models. Carol Goulet '09, now pursuing a clinical psychology doctoral program in West Virginia, helped conceptualize the project and write the grant.

"We know from literature that exposure to thin models induces negative mood, heightens body dissatisfaction and lowers self-esteem in most women," Szymanski says. "But there has never been any research done to look at what happens physiologically to these women."

So, that's what Szymanski and Pellegrini decided to do — with the help of Goulet, a double major in psychology and biology, Lauren Brin '10, a chemistry major, and Kate Milner '10, a psychology major.

The researchers took a two-step approach. First, they asked a group of undergraduate students to rate the thinness of models from about 40 images culled from fashion magazines such as Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Vogue and Elle. "Thinness is and isn't subjective," says Pellegrini. "We can put the models in clothes to hide how thin they are, but if you stood them on scales, there is no way in creation they would be normal weight."

When the votes were tallied, 20 images perceived as "most thin" were selected for round two.

The researchers then recruited another student group from St. Kate's — 34 women with no eating disorders and an average age of 19. The students saw images of thin models in one session and images of "neutral objects" — like chairs, towels, light bulbs, books — in another session one week later.

"We measured heart rate and electro-dermal responses, like sweaty palms, during the presentations," Pellegrini explains. "And we also collected saliva samples before and after showing those images." The saliva was collected to measure cortisol levels, the best understood stress hormone.

What did they find?

A woman's mood plummets and she feels stress about her own looks when exposed to images of thin models, but her heart rate and cortisol levels don't increase. Researchers did see a trend toward sweating during the presentations of images of thin models, though nothing statistically significant.

"I was most surprised by how bummed out our subjects became after viewing just a short PowerPoint," Pellegrini says. "I had anecdotally heard that our media images were improving and that young women weren't as vulnerable to these unrealistic ideals, but based on our data, it's still a big problem."

"We still consider thin women the ideal in magazines, TV and movies," he adds. "This research does matter because so many of our students are in the Butler Center on the elliptical machine reading fashion magazines filled with images of incredibly thin women."

The athletic woman

The anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, is one of four major knee ligaments. It runs up and down the front middle of the knee and is critical to knee stability. People who injure their ACL may experience wobbly knees or have limited knee movement because of swelling and pain.

Jaynie Bjornaraa, an assistant professor in St. Kate's Doctor of Physical Therapy program, is studying how female athletes with ACL reconstruction move — specifically, if they're moving in a way that increases their risk of getting another injury — and she's re-introducing healthy movement patterns during the rehabilitation process when necessary.

"This is a really common injury with women athletes in soccer, basketball and other sports where the athletes are cutting, running and jumping a lot," says Bjornaraa, also a certified athletic trainer and strength-and-conditioning specialist. "Women are four to six times more likely than men to injure their ACL." The majority of ACL repairs that occur each year happen to female athletes under age 25. "It's happening more and more because girls are playing so competitively at such a young age," Bjornaraa says.

The different rates of injury in men and women are due to differences in anatomy, knee alignment, ligament laxity, muscle strength and conditioning.

In her study of ACL, which she started in 2003 for her Ph.D. thesis, Bjornaraa has found that women with ACL reconstruction aren't bending their knees enough and they're not quick on their feet.

"We need to identify more of these behaviors so the athletes don't end up with another injury," she says. "After that, it's a simple fix. We can retrain them in rehab with drills and exercises that require balance, power and agility."

In the past decade, athletic trainers have become more aware of refining sports techniques for a woman's body, Bjornaraa adds. "We hope to see less injury down the road because coaches are emphasizing drills where the athletes crouch down and flex their knees."

Somehow, that squat-like stance and other movements that may protect the knees don't get passed on to their female counterparts.

Why study women?

Women haven't always been the subjects of research studies in the United States, especially in experiments or surveys related to public health. New drugs, for example, were tested exclusively on men. "People just assumed women would be like small men," says Myers, the biology professor. "And likewise, we have assumed that children would react to drugs or any other health intervention in the same way as an adult — because they're just small adults."

Assumptions and biases started to change less than three decades ago. A report released in 1985 by the Public Health Service Task Force on Women's Health prompted the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to establish a policy encouraging the inclusion of women in clinical research. In 1987, NIH introduced a policy for minorities also to be included in studies. Three years later, NIH formed the Office of Research on Women's Health.

"Sure it's easier to do a study with people who aren't having periods or might not be pregnant, but if you're going to give a drug to someone who is menstruating, you have to know how it's going to behave," Myers says. "And if you don't test it on women, you're never going to know. The scientific community got by with that for years because there weren't women doing the studies."

At St. Kate's, more women will likely ask these important questions when the Women's Health Integrative Research Center opens in Fontbonne Hall. The University has allocated more than $100,000 to renovate the racquetball courts in Fontbonne this fall for the center's laboratory space, which will be used to study women's health issues.

Grant recipients included Myers, Cort Cieminski, director of the DPT, and Mark Blegen, associate professor of exercise and sports science. They received a $40,000 grant from the Gertrude R. Shiely Charitable Trust, with the help of St. Kate's Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations Kristine Wyant.

"We wanted a place to integrate aspects of health, nutrition and movement," explains Myers. "There'll be a great variety of projects going on at the same time, many of them interdisciplinary in nature and involving undergraduate and graduate students working together. Our vision is that the new laboratory will produce a quantum jump in the number of women doing this type of research as part of training for health-related or fundamental research careers."

Pauline Oo is a staff writer and editor in the Office of Marketing and Communications at St. Catherine University.

 

 


Drawings by Emily Dewey '13, Grace Dupre '11 and Ashley Murray '11