Student Research Spotlight – Elizabeth Chesley

Photo source: Elizabeth Chesley

Hi! My name is Elizabeth and I am a 5th year Biology student in the Faculty of Science. I am originally from Medicine Hat, A.B., but have called Vancouver home for 7 years now. Through my degree I have been involved in a rather diverse range of research experiences. In the summers following my 2nd and 3rd year, I was a clinical research assistant at Dr. Maitreyi Raman’s gastroenterology and hepatology lab at the University of Calgary. Later, I was involved in the Campbell Lab at UBC, looking at the effects of exercise on cancer-related cognitive impairments. This past term, I did a directed study with Dr. Irene Ballagh, exploring the neurobiological basis of gender identity.

Outside of UBC, I volunteer with Kitsilano Neighbourhood House. I have been involved in both family and senior’s programming for 4 years and was even awarded their youth Good Neighbour Award in 2020! I also work part-time in an afterschool care program at False Creek Community Centre.

What did you research?

My directed study was review of current literature, examining two hypotheses. I theorised that certain differentiations that occur during neural network development can contribute to one’s sense of gender identity, looking specifically at the limbic system and social behaviour network. These systems are involved in regulating sexually dimorphic social behaviours and are conserved across all vertebrates. I also explored the plausibility of using animal analogs in studying gender, hypothesising that the examples I found of “gendered” animal behaviour influenced by these specific networks could be extrapolated to humans.

Throughout the term, Dr. Ballagh and I critically analysed articles, expanding my understanding of neurobiology and sex-related development, while also creating a novel synthesis of existing information. At the end of the project, I was able to do my thesis presentation for the Sex and Gender Inclusivity in Biology committee, which was a wonderful experience!

Why is this research important?

Current scientific understanding of gender is quite limited due to a host of ethical issues. Research that involves denying gender-affirming care to transgender folks, as well as forcing the same care on cisgender people, is not okay. Current understanding of biological influences is pretty limited due to this. Through animals, such as mice, we would be able to do more experimental, as opposed to observational, research.

This also provides further evidence that gender is not a choice. There are so many variations that can occur during neural network development and can influence social behaviour, which also supports the dissolution of the gender binary.

How has your background influenced your research experience?

As a non-binary person in biology, I am mindful of the limited acknowledgement of those outside the gender binary in scientific research and education. I got involved in this project with Dr. Ballagh because I felt a strong connection to the Sex & Gender Acknowledgement included at the beginning of her BIOL 371 lectures. I found that personal experience and understanding of my own gender really fueled my interest in this subject.

What advice would you give to other students who are considering doing a research project?

It’s something that’s been said many times before, but talk to your professors. The first step to doing a research project or directed study is reaching out to people who are doing research or involved in research you find interesting. Despite Dr. Ballagh not currently having a wet lab at UBC, she was still very interested in aiding me in my research.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I find that I’m at my best mentally (and academically) when I have time set aside to be active and outside. My favourite part of living in Vancouver is having close access to so many cool sports! I love to climb, ski, backpack, and really anything else outdoors whenever I can.

Elizabeth enjoying the outdoors

What are your plans following graduation?

I am starting the Master of Management program through the Sauder School of Business this June. After the 6-month program ends, I’m hoping to work for a company that brings at least a couple of my interests together. I’d love to work for an outdoorsy company, or maybe something in biotechnology and research.

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