Researchers all across the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus are working toward advancing knowledge and creating solutions to critical health disparities on both local and global scales. These researchers evaluate health disparities from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives, and work to find ways to address the discrepancies within medicine, child development, law, food access, education, and health communication. Each Researcher Spotlight features a health disparities researcher doing important work right here at Illinois.
Zeynep Madak-Erdogan, PhD
Assistant Professor, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition
Zeynep Madak-Erdogan, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition and the principle investigator of the Women's Health and Nutrition Lab. Through her research, she seeks to improve the quality of life for women and breast cancer survivors by understanding how diet and nutrition affect hormone action. Her lab uses multiscale modeling of –omics data from patient samples, animal models, and cell lines to understand the molecular basis of metabolic regulation by nuclear receptors and therapy resistance in cancer. Prof. Madak-Erdogan earned her doctoral degree in Cell and Developmental Biology from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
What is your research in health disparities about?
We have several ongoing studies related to health disparities. In the first study, we are focusing on hormone receptor positive breast cancer disparities in African American women who live in south side Chicago. The second study is concerned with maternal health disparities in the context of gestational diabetes mellitus. There are many complications associated with this disease, from difficulties with pregnancy, labor, and delivery to maternal and child health problems later in life. In the United States, Native American, Asian, Hispanic, and African American women are at higher risk of developing this disease than non-Hispanic white women. Although obesity is often seen as one of the key factors, it is also observed that racial and ethnic minorities have a higher burden of diabetes and prediabetes at lower levels of BMIs than whites. Thus, the main goal of the research project is to identify factors other than obesity, such as molecular factors, that play a role in disease racial/ethnical differences.
How are you conducting your research?
For the breast cancer study, we are collaborating with clinicians from University of Illinois at Chicago and Mercy Hospital, a community hospital in south side Chicago. They are providing us with the blood samples to characterize. Once we identify molecules that might contribute to breast cancer disparities, our collaborators at UIC and Northwestern will further study the role of these molecules in various preclinical models. The second project is a collaboration between University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and University of Birmingham in the UK as part of the Birmingham-Illinois Partnership for Discovery, Engagement and Education. Dr. Justina Zurauskiene, a BRIDGE Fellow working in the area of computational women’s health, is visiting my lab for one year and together we have initiated this work. We are partnering with Champaign-Urbana Public Health District to recruit diverse populations. We are using various experimental platforms to assess pregnant women’s blood for any signs of inflammation, and subtle metabolic and glucose differences.
How does being a part of the Illinois community support and enhance your research?
This is a very diverse community in terms of research interests and cultural input. It is really easy to form competent teams that would help us overcome problems in different projects or simply provide valuable connections to other communities. For example, our research on maternal health disparities in the context of gestational diabetes mellitus requires us to collect and analyze diverse datasets, which is crucial to truly understanding the nature of maternal health differences. Having the computational power and state-of-the-art data analysis provided by Liudmila Mainzer, PhD, at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications further enhances this research. Additionally, Professor Yanina Pepino from Food Science and Human Nutrition provides her expertise in glucose metabolism and clinical aspects concerning this project. We are very grateful to be part of this rich community.
How will your research or work improve society or reach people?
For the first project, identification of key players that might contribute to worst breast cancer outcomes will eventually lead to therapeutic or life-style interventions to reduce breast cancer disparities. For the second project, the ultimate goal is to find better markers for gestational diabetes that are sensitive to differences across disparate ethnicities/races. In the future, we will seek to expand our collaborations to engineering sciences in order to develop affordable tests for this condition. The vision for this work to contribute towards maternal health and birth outcome improvements.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
Over the years, I mentored several students from underrepresented minority groups. My interactions with these talented individuals made me realize issues that are related to my research interests. I also observed how my students were passionate about these problems that they experienced first-hand. As a researcher coming from a developing country, it is least that I can do to use the education and experience that I have to train these individuals and also provide resources to tackle these problems. Our impact might be small but we have to start somewhere to activate policy changes to address societal issues using hard evidence from basic sciences.