"The longer the baby stays in the womb, the better," explains Teenus Paramel Jayaprakash, a PhD student at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine who is studying the vaginal microbiome (vaginal environment) of pregnant women whose amniotic sacs break early.
"But at the same time, because there is membrane rupture, there's the possibility of infection — the baby can get infected and the mother's health can also be compromised."
The goal of Jayaprakash's research project is to determine whether the outcome of this scenario can be predicted based on the microbiome — whether the woman will go into delivery immediately, or undergo a period of latency before reaching full term.
For the past four years, Jayaprakash has been processing vaginal microbiome samples and analyzing the data without actually knowing how the samples were collected from pregnant patients at the Women's Health Research Institute in Vancouver, B.C.
That changed this spring when Jayaprakash received a Skills and Development Award through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research's Institute of Gender and Health. With the award's funding, the graduate student was able to travel to the BC Women's Hospital & Health Centre and to the research institute.
"This was an opportunity for me to go and understand the clinical side of my project. I was hoping to get an idea about different clinical data that is collected and to understand the different parameters and their significance."
Jayaprakash's second goal was to do some statistical analysis with the data that she had processed.
Finally, Jayaprakash explains there was a third component to her visit: "Whenever a vaginal sample is collected it is Gram stained and then there is a score given to it – that decides whether the woman is having bacterial vaginosis or if she's healthy and normal. This is one of the basic diagnostic methods when we talk about vaginal health and microbiome."
Although Jayaprakash's project focuses on the total community of microorganisms, she has also published work on a specific genus seen in the vaginal microbiome – Gardneralla vaginalis.
"This was a very underappreciated group of organisms — they were known to be very strongly co-ordinated with women's health, but nobody had actually researched to genotypically resolve the group," says Jayaprakash.
"We looked at this group and we were able to publish a paper saying that this particular genus is composed of four groups, that can likely be argued to be different species." This knowledge will help future researchers to conduct more in-depth investigations of each species.
Before coming to the WCVM, Jayaprakash completed undergraduate and master's degrees in technology — both in biotechnology — while living in her home country of India.
Her interest in molecular biology grew after meeting her current supervisor, Dr. Janet Hill of the WCVM's Department of Veterinary Microbiology, while doing work in Canada for a nine-month project as part of her MTech program.
Jayaprakash says studying in Canada is very different to what she was used to in India. She's enjoyed the opportunity to be directly involved in the design of her experiments and working closely with Hill.
"I love Canada, the work atmosphere is great, the respect that you get is very different. The relationship between a student and a supervisor back home is a lot different from how it is here," says Jayaprakash, who expects to be finished the experimental portion of her research by September 2013.
Jayaprakash hopes to defend her PhD thesis by next April. She's uncertain of her plans after graduation, but does know what area she wants to work in.
"I would like to go back into engineering with the knowledge I have gained here."
Melissa Cavanagh of Winnipeg, Man., is a second-year veterinary student who is the WCVM's research communications intern for the summer of 2013.