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2013 Mats Sundin Fellows named

Mats Sundin with Fellows Sophie Petropoulos at left and Jessica Weidner at right (photo courtesy the Canadian Embassy in Sweden)

Experts agree that a mother’s health and lifestyle during pregnancy can have a lasting impact on a child’s development. But just how crucial are those initial days after conception?

This is just one of the many questions Mats Sundin Fellow Sophie Petropoulos is looking to answer.

Petropoulos is one of two postdoctoral fellows awarded the 2013 Mats Sundin Fellowship in Developmental Health, an elite exchange initiative between the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine and the Karolinska Institute (KI) in Stockholm, Sweden. Jessica Weidner from KI will be conducting research at U of T. She will be looking at the effects of Toxoplasma gondii — also known as the cat litter parasite — on fetal development.

The new fellows were announced August 20th during a ceremony held at the Canadian Embassy in Stockholm.

Former Toronto Maple Leafs captain and National Hockey League superstar Mats Sundin worked with other donors to help start the fellowship, which provides advanced postdoctoral training in human development. One candidate from each university will complete up to two years of postdoctoral research at the other’s institution. (Learn more about the Sundin fellowships.)

The program is managed by the Fraser Mustard Institute for Human Development, a first-of-its-kind research institute that explores how the first 2000 days of life impact future development and growth. Experts in health, social sciences and education work together to determine what factors lead to chronic and non-communicable conditions such as obesity, diabetes, learning disabilities and anxiety disorders. (Read more about the Fraser Mustard Institute for Human Development.)

“I’m most excited about learning from leading researchers in the field of human development, and working with new, cutting-edge single cell RNA sequencing technology," said Petropoulos. "I’m confident this fellowship will take my research and the field to the next level."

During her fellowship, Petropoulos will focus on determining the genetic blueprint during the first seven days of human development. This is a critical time because the embryo divides from a single cell into a group of cells which eventually become the fetus and placenta. Adverse environmental factors such as stress can have a major impact on the growth and development of both the fetus and placenta, potentially increasing the child’s susceptibility to diabetes, obesity and anxiety disorders later in life.

“This research will provide further insight into the mechanisms that regulate normal development, as well as shed light on how these genes are influenced by the environment. The answers we uncover will help us develop the tools and interventions needed to ensure optimal health as the child grows,” said Petropoulos.

A postdoctoral fellow, Petropoulos is co-supervised by Professor Stephen Matthews, chair of the Department of Physiology and a member of the Fraser Mustard Institute for Human Development and Professor Moshe Szyf at McGill University

“The research Sophie and Jessica conduct during their fellowships will help us better understand the origins of various psychological and physical conditions. The discoveries made both here at U of T and at Karolinska can fundamentally change our understanding of human development,” said Matthews.

Suniya Kukaswadia is a writer with the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto.