Women who have experienced menopausal hot flashes—and the men around them—know how uncomfortable the experience can be. Hot flashes are typically thought to be the result of dropping estrogen levels associated with menopause. However hot flashes may originate for a more adaptive purpose; post-partum women also experience a drop in estrogen levels and hot flashes during the breast feeding period.
As part of her Student Assistantship in Family Research, UMass Amherst senior Amanda Otto ’12 is examining the link between post-partum hot flashes and those experienced by menopausal women. The Center for Research on Families funded Amanda with a research grant to work under the guidance and mentorship of Lynnette Leidy Sievert, professor of anthropology, to study recent mothers in the Pioneer Valley.
Literature on the subject is relatively new, and sparse. The first published study documenting hot flashes in post partum women appeared in 1992, by William Marshall. In 1994, Fred Naftolin, M.D first suggested that menopausal hot flashes are a remnant of a mother’s response to falling estrogen levels after giving birth. In 2011, he elaborated that women experience hot flashes in the post-partum phase to warm nursing infants.
The study that Amanda and Dr. Sievert are conducting looks at hot flashes experienced by post-partum women in comparison to women who are not recent mothers. They are testing the hypothesis that recent mothers will experience hot flashes at higher rates than women whose estrogen levels are unaffected by pregnancy, delivery, and breastfeeding. The study examines 24 women, 12 recent mothers and 12 age-matched control participants in the Pioneer Valley. A sternal skin conductance monitor measures sweat production to detect hot flashes; skin conductance levels rise in participants experiencing hot flashes .
Dr. Sievert hopes that the link between menopausal and post-partum hot flashes will provide comfort to menopausal women. “If we can explain why we have hot flashes at menopause by referring back the mother infant dyad, I think that makes hot flashes a little more tolerable.” As Amanda puts it, for many women, learning about the connection “gives a sense of purpose to the hot flashes.”
Having wanted to do this study for a while, Dr. Sievert approached Amanda, one of the best students in her Introduction to Biological Anthropology class, and pushed her to “try her hand at research”. Dr. Sievert, a Family Research Scholar (’04-’05, ’08-’09) encouraged Amanda to apply for the Family Research Assistantship offered by CRF. The Family Research Assistantship is given to undergraduate students who exhibit the potential to make outstanding contributions to the field of family research and seek further mentoring in this area. Paired with a faculty mentor, students assist in their mentor’s research on issues related to the family.
For Amanda, who is currently applying to graduate school to study both anthropology and public health, this has been a great opportunity to get out of the library and learn how to conduct research in the field. Prior to this experience, “I never really had much experience past writing a research paper…I went from zero understanding on how research works beyond the theoretical. Dr. Sievert has shown me every step of how to do research.” It has also given her a strong mentor with years of experience to help her through the research process. “Usually you’re just thrown out there and people expect you to know how to do it without ever being mentored,” says Amanda.
However, the mentoring relationship has not been without benefits for Dr. Sievert. “It’s not a one-way street,” says Dr. Sievert. “There have been a number of times where Amanda will see the way I’ve been doing something, and has said ‘what about doing it this way’, which has saved time and effort .”
Dr. Sievert, who has sat on the board of the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program, believes that students with research experience are more competitive in the application for NSF funding proposals. “As faculty we should be helping to make our undergrads competitive for those kinds of opportunities. CRF’s Student Research Grants and Awards Program is one way of preparing our undergrads to be competitive.”
As part of the assistantship, Amanda has also been able to interact with CRF’s graduate student fellows as part of an ongoing working group of CRF student awardees -- an experience she enjoyed. “I feel like undergraduates stick in their own field of study with undergrads, and they don’t really go out and look at the interconnectedness of social research. It’s been interesting because I get exposure to grad students, what they’re doing, and it’s interdisciplinary.”
And for her graduate school application, learning these skills has narrowed her focus and made her a more self-assured and stronger candidate. “It gives me confidence because -- I’m like WOW -- I’m here with graduate students! And I talk about my research as an equal!” exclaims Amanda.
Dr. Sievert praises CRF for “extending its role beyond faculty and increasing the awareness of research on families to graduate and undergraduate students.”
For information on CRF’s opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students, please visit: http://www.umass.edu/family/students.