McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

2011 Michael G. DeGroote Fellowship Awards
Fellows focus on health issues of vulnerable populations

Published: March 6, 2012
Recipients of the 2011 Michael G. DeGroote Fellowship Awards (from left): Dr. Mark Ferro, post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences, and Chris Verschoor, post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine
Recipients of the 2011 Michael G. DeGroote Fellowship Awards (from left): Dr. Mark Ferro, post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences, and Chris Verschoor, post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine

As recipients of the 2011 Michael G. DeGroote Fellowship Awards, Drs. Mark Ferro and Chris Verschoor are pulling back the curtain on two widespread problems that affect the health and well-being of society’s most vulnerable populations.

One researcher is investigating the molecular underpinnings of pneumonia in the elderly. The other is trying to gain a deeper understanding of how chronic illness impacts mental health in adolescents. Both will now be able to make strides in their research as a result of the award funded by Michael G. DeGroote.

The DeGroote Fellowship Awards provide postdoctoral candidates in the Faculty of Health Sciences the opportunity to pursue leading-edge research.

As an undergrad studying biochemistry at McMaster University, Dr. Mark Ferro thought he was on the path to a career in basic research. But when a co-op placement took him out of the wet lab and introduced him to the study of health at the population level, he changed his outlook altogether.

"I developed an appreciation for epidemiology both as a science and a method," said Ferro, who is now a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences at McMaster.

As a 2011 recipient of a DeGroote Fellowship Award, Ferro is using a population-based approach to study self-concept in adolescents with asthma, epilepsy and other chronic illnesses. Self-concept is a psychological construct that describes how people think about themselves with respect to physical appearance, behaviour, competence and social acceptance. Research has shown those with chronic illnesses generally have a compromised self-concept.

"The overarching goal of my work is to understand the family processes that impact a child’s self-concept and how that self-concept then impacts mental health outcomes in adolescence," said Ferro, who works under the supervision of Dr. Michael Boyle, a pioneer in child psychiatric epidemiology.

Ferro’s research will use population-level data from Statistics Canada, as well as clinical data gathered from adolescents who are being actively treated for chronic illnesses. By comparing the two data sets, he is hoping to improve understanding of self-concept in vulnerable populations and explore how it changes over time.

Dr. Chris Verschoor, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine, is working under the supervision of Dr. Dawn Bowdish to better understand the immunological factors associated with high rates of pneumonia in Canadian nursing homes.

As a recipient of a 2011 DeGroote Fellowship Award, Verschoor is combining genetics, epidemiology and molecular biology to unravel the molecular mechanisms that lead to immunosenescence, or the age-related deterioration of the immune system.

A year into his post-doctoral fellowship, he’s adopted a translational approach to his research — processing 160 patient blood samples from nursing home residents to look for age-related changes. By examining how white blood cells decline with age, he’s hoping to uncover new targets for diagnostic and therapeutic strategies. The next stage of the study will be to look at how other comorbidities, such as smoking and asthma, also influence rates of pneumonia.

"What I really enjoy about the environment here — and I got right away — is this is a collaborative effort and everybody works really hard and publishes really high-impact research," said Verschoor, who completed his undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Guelph.

In addition to his pneumonia studies, Verschoor is working with co-supervisor Dr. Cynthia Balion on understanding the relationship between blood molecules, aging and dementia. A provisional patent is in the works, which would be Verschoor’s second.

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