By Sharday Mosurinjohn
Tuesday November 20th, 2012 has come to represent the successful completion of two of Amy Hewitt’s greatest projects, and with it, the beginning of an exciting new phase in her life; on this day, Hewitt gave birth to her first child and graduated with a doctorate in Pharmacology & Toxicology – in that order! As Hewitt prepared over the last nine months for parenthood, she was also preparing her thesis for defense and submission. On the topic of time management, Hewitt says, “I was lucky I guess because I defended in May when I was 3 months pregnant. That was perfect because I don’t know if I’d have been able to function and have a coherent conversation when I was pregnant.” The accomplished scholar jokes, “I was determined to finish before my brain was high on hormones.”
And Hewitt knew more than a little about the brain and pregnancy. Over the past several years, the new PhD has researched, among other things, brain and behavioural outcomes in the offspring of guinea pigs given different doses of ethanol – yes, studies where the guinea pig is literally a guinea pig. These studies are shedding light on the various aspects of alcohol effects on the developing fetus and mother.
Hewitt became interested in fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) after finishing her undergraduate degree in Biology at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY, when she went to work in a lab that was studying respiratory control and, in particular, the relationship between respiratory control centers of the brainstem, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Hewitt had actually finished a year of a Nursing degree at the University of Ottawa when she got the opportunity to transfer to St. Lawrence on an athletic scholarship. “I loved playing varsity hockey, and I knew a number of my teammates really enjoyed continuing with the sport by attending American schools on hockey scholarships,” Hewitt explains. (Hewitt didn’t continue with hockey in her first year back in Canada, but in her second year, she started coaching in the Greater Kingston Girls’ Hockey Association with the Fundamental program, which turned out to have a funny connection to her double celebratory day: “The nurse in the delivery room looked so familiar; we were trying to place each other. She turned out to be a hockey mom connection,” Hewitt laughs).
While searching for the right graduate school to let her explore her research interests in FASD, it was discovering the work going on in Queen’s Brien and Reynolds Lab that brought her back to Canada. “I came to Queen’s for my Master’s degree, found it was a great fit, and ended up doing a mini-Master’s which rolled right into a PhD,” says Hewitt of her research trajectory. Co-supervised by Dr. James Reynolds and Dr. Jim Brien, Hewitt maintained impressive organization and efficiency throughout the writing phase of her PhD, and the first trimester of her pregnancy. “I’m appreciative that my supervisors pushed me to publish results from the studies that formed the different parts of my overall project as I finished them. These publications formed the basis of my thesis chapters, so in the months leading up to my defense, all I had to do was compose an introduction and write up my conclusions.”
Another major source of support was Hewitt’s husband, who is also a PhD student at Queen’s. He has been, in Hewitt’s words, “wicked supportive.” “When it was crunch time, I was able to say ‘I wont see you for the rest of the night’ and he took care of things so I could finish my work. It’s so valuable to have a partnership where you can both pick up the pieces for each other every once in a while when you really need it.” Grinning, she says that together, the two are “terrified and excited” about incorporating parenthood into their roles as academics and researchers.
For now, Hewitt is just thrilled to have a healthy baby and to have had a smooth enough delivery that she could cross the stage to mark the culmination of years of dedication to her research. “After giving birth, I felt tired but fine. Everyone at KGH (Kingston General Hospital) was incredibly accommodating and they said it wasn’t a problem for me to make the short trip over to the ceremony and then right back to the hospital.” Since Hewitt was due on the 23rd, three days before convocation, it was about as ideal a scenario as possible. “For weeks, the girls at school and I were joking that with my luck, my water would break on stage.” Thankfully, the timing worked out, and Hewitt was also in good company at the ceremony: “The woman next to me in line was a mother of three, so she was intent on keeping an eye on me the whole time.”
Hewitt is “not sure yet where we’ll end up,” but is certain that she loves FASD research and wants to be at the bench. “I know teaching is not for me. I’ve TA’d a lot and helped out with labs, but I’m not fond of getting up and lecturing because I hate being the center of attention.” She smiles, wryly appraising the compromises that researchers often have to make: “we all kind of joke about these dream jobs where we wouldn’t have to teach but where we could do all the research we want. But there are many interesting avenues I could go down with my work. Fetal and child development – especially with regard to autism, but really with any other developmental issues – are where my interests lie.” While her husband finishes his PhD, Hewitt will look for research work in Kingston, but for the time being, she is settling into family life and taking the time to enjoy the incredibly timed arrival of two major milestones.