Dr. Wendie Marks (PhD) is the Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Developmental Origins of Health and Disease in Indigenous People and an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics. (Photo: Submitted)
Dr. Wendie Marks (PhD) is the Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Developmental Origins of Health and Disease in Indigenous People and an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics. (Photo: Submitted)

Dr. Wendie Marks: Researching the complex connections between stress, nutrition, and health

By the end of grade eight, Dr. Wendie Marks (PhD) was sure about one thing: she knew she wanted to study health and the way early-life development affected the human body.

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I spent a lot of time in the library reading books,” Marks said. “I was always kind of the nerdy type.” 

Marks enrolled at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) and thrived, earning her PhD in psychology. Her interests evolved towards behavioural neuroscience, focusing on the mechanisms behind behaviour, stress, and their effects on mental and physical health. 

“I wanted to make new knowledge. I wanted to be on the cutting edge of finding new pathways that might be involved in anxiety, or depression,” she said. 

Under the direction of Dr. Lisa Kalanchuk (PhD), Marks looked at stress and depression, during her graduate studies at the University of Saskatchewan. From there, her post-doctoral research veered into epilepsy models at the University of Calgary. Still, Marks’ passion for understanding stress and its intergenerational effects never wavered. 

When she returned to USask last year as an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics, Marks steered her research toward investigating stress's effects on health and chronic disease.

This summer, she was appointed as a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Developmental Origins of Health and Disease in Indigenous People. Over the next five years, she plans to study the way life experiences, particularly stress and nutrition during pregnancy and early years, can have long-term effects on an individual's health and well-being. 

This research isn't just academic for Marks; it's deeply personal. 

Marks is a member of the Anishinabe of Wauzhushk Onigum First Nation, near Lake of the Woods, Ontario, but she was born and raised in Saskatoon. Her mother and her siblings survived both residential school and the “60s Scoop”.

“The whole family was split up. There are aunts and uncles I’ve never even met,” said Marks.  "I've seen within my family firsthand the effects that those stressors have played on people, and the effects those things can have on families.”

Today, Marks credits her academic and research career to her mother’s unwavering support, encouragement and resilience.

 "She's one of the strongest people I know,” said Marks.

In this episode, Marks explained she’ll study stress in two different ways. First, she plans to use a multi-generational rat model to study the consequences of early-life stress by separating mothers from their pups. She’ll also model malnutrition by reducing the mother’s protein intake. 

Her goal is to measure each set of stressors separately, then assess whether they have a deeper effect combined. 

“Being hungry or exposed to stress when you're younger, chronically, it's possible that it can rewire your stress circuitry,” said Marks, who noted that is the case in numerous animal models. 

Her team will investigate how these factors can lead to physiological and cognitive changes, particularly in obesity and brain circuitry. 

In the second stage of her research, Marks will observe health conditions in those rats’ descendants, and propose potential treatments.

‘There's a lot of compelling evidence to suggest that stress and the gut microbiome are linked together and affect our health later on in life,” Marks said. 

Ultimately, Marks hopes to apply the findings from animal studies to real-world situations within Indigenous communities, and help them come up with preventive strategies.

She hopes to bridge the gap between knowledge and action, ultimately improving the health and well-being of Indigenous communities for generations to come.

"Knowledge itself is powerful," Marks said. “The hope is that with this research we begin to find some of the answers and some of the solutions to decolonize Indigenous communities.”

Her work is a testament to resilience, hope, and the profound impact of science in healing intergenerational trauma.

“It’s a significant motivator for my research,” Marks said. “What can I contribute to try to make our world a better place?”

(Runs 21:26)