We welcome collaborations with junior faculty. Here we highlight two junior faculty members that have received funding for projects using the LEGACY Girls Study cohort. For more information about opportunities for junior faculty, please contact the LEGACY Girls Study Principal Investigators.
Dr. Jasmine McDonald, Co-Investigator
Extensive evidence indicates that the age at pubertal timing has declined for girls. Understanding contributors to early puberty in girls is critical given its relationship to psychosocial adjustment and increased risk for adult chronic conditions including hormonal cancers. The growing trend in childhood obesity has received the most attention as a key driver in earlier puberty. However, the decline in the average age of menarche occurred before the childhood obesity epidemic, and in settings with relatively low prevalence of childhood obesity, suggesting that other factors are at play. Less attention has been given to examining other changes in early life exposures and pubertal timing. Limited, but intriguing evidence, suggests that childhood microbial exposures are associated with the age of pubertal onset, including age at breast development and menarche. These prior studies have not been rigorously designed to examine causality between childhood microbial exposures and pubertal timing.
Dr. McDonald was awarded a NCI Mentored Research Scientist Career Development Award to Promote Diversity (K01 CA1186943) that focuses on examining the relationship between early life and childhood microbial exposures and pubertal timing. This career development award, Childhood Infection and Puberty, measures childhood infection burden by serological measures, medical records, and mother reported infectious exposures and assesses the impact on age at pubertal timing in girls within the LEGACY Girls Study. Dr. McDonald also examines the bidirectional biological communication between the immune system and the endocrine system in relationship to age at pubertal timing. By addressing the myriad of challenges in exposure and outcome measurements as well as temporality, Dr. McDonald’s research applies epidemiological study designs and solutions to determine if an old hypothesis can explain the new trend of earlier age of maturation in girls.
Dr. McDonald received her PhD in Biological Sciences in Public Health in 2009 from Harvard University with a concentration in immunology and infectious diseases. She received her B.S. in Biochemistry/Molecular Biology from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2003 where she was a Meyerhoff and MARC U*STAR Scholar. Dr. McDonald is an Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health (MSPH) at Columbia University as well as the co-Director of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) Continuing Umbrella of Research Experience (CURE) Program.
Dr. Lauren Houghton, Co-Investigator
Predicting an individual’s risk for breast cancer has evolved over years of research. Simple questions such as, “How many of your first-degree relatives - mother, sisters, daughters - have had breast cancer?” and “What was your age at the time of your first menstrual period?” can help a woman understand her risk, plan future screening and/or alter her behaviors accordingly. But there may be important risk factors that these questions are not accounting for, especially in women that have a strong family history.
Biological markers from blood such as hormone levels, specifically androgens, may be especially informative in this high risk group. Research has shown that androgens are related to both the age at which puberty begins and breast cancer risk.
The focus of Dr. Houghton’s Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) research is to compare androgen levels in girls and women with and without a family history of breast cancer and in women that go on to develop breast cancer. She is conducting this study within the New York-based components of two large, multi-site cohorts known as LEGACY (Lessons in Epidemiology and Genetics of Adult Cancer from Youth) and ProFSC (Prospective Family Study Cohort).
In the past year, Dr. Houghton has observed that pubertal development is earlier in girls with a family history of breast cancer. In the next year, she will test if higher androgens levels explain earlier onset of puberty in these girls. If so, she will measures urinary androgens in women participating in ProFSC, the large family-based cohort from which LEGACY girls were recruited, to test if androgens differ in women with and without breast cancer and if androgens can improve breast cancer prediction models.
Dr. Houghton takes a life course approach to understanding the intersection of environmental and hormonal factors in breast cancer carcinogenesis, focusing primarily on exposures during the puberty. She is interested in how culture gets beneath the skin, especially in relation to women’s reproductive lives from puberty to breastfeeding to menopause. She gained experience in Cancer Epidemiology as a post-doctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute where she explored international variation in sex steroids and other biomarkers. She has extensively worked with migrant populations in Bangladesh, the UK and Mongolia to better understand genetic and environmental risk factors among females moving from low to high risk geographic areas. She has conducted fieldwork with Native Americans in the US, menopausal women in the UK and school girls in Bangladesh and is currently a co-investigator of the LEGACY girls study in New York City. Having a background in anthropology (PhD and MSC, Durham University, UK), Dr. Houghton is also interested in developing mixed methods to be implemented in epidemiological and community health studies to better capture biological and cultural mediators of health disparities. She was the recipient of NCI Director's Innovation Award in 2014.