Lei Cao

Lei Cao - Photo credit Weam Fageera

May 2017 Trainee spotlight

Supervisor
Suzanne King 

Co-Supervisor
Moshe Szyf 

Degree
Postdoctoral Fellow,  Year 5 

Program of Study
Effect of prenatal maternal stress on children's DNA methylation profile and physical development. 

Why did you choose to come to the Douglas?

Dr. Suzanne King’s Project Ice Storm is the first study that allows us to explore epigenetics in a human cohort exposed to prenatal stress derived from a natural disaster. Moreover, the Douglas Institute has an increasingly strong international reputation, and is one of the top Research Institutes in Canada. 

What did you do before coming to the Douglas?

I did my PhD study in University of Trier in Germany and Public Research Center and the Health Laboratory in Luxembourg. My project was transcriptional control of human Glucocorticoid Receptor (GR).

Sell your research in 3 sentences (or less)

My research focuses on the effect of prenatal maternal stress derived from a natural disaster on child development using (epi)genetic approaches. This is very important research because using the natural disaster (the 1998 Quebec Ice Storm) as our prenatal “stressor” allows us to distinguish between different aspects of prenatal stress: what happened to the women objectively (e.g., the number of days without electricity), compared to how they thought about the disaster (e.g., “It was a positive experience”), and their subjective distress from it (e.g., “I have flashbacks to the storm”). No other project in the world is able to make these important distinctions, and we are finding that they have different effects on the epigenome.

What excites you most about your research?

The human cohort used in my research has been followed for almost 20 years. Working with this longitudinal study makes me feel excited. We have found that two aspects of prenatal stress, the objective degree of exposure and the women’s cognitive appraisal, impacted genome-wide DNA methylation profile in T-cells of Ice Storm children, and could still be seen at least 13.5 years later. Furthermore, we found that DNA methylation mediates the association between prenatal stress and child’s outcomes, such as immune and metabolic function. 

If you could go back in time and give your "younger self" advice, what would you do differently?

The advice I’d like to give my younger self is to stay open-minded and to consider my specific research with a multi-disciplinary outlook. 

Please share any additional experiences or advice that you'd like to share with prospective Douglas trainees.

Research life is challenging, but be confident, patient and have fun!