May 7, 2021

Health research student wins UCalgary 3MT finals, heads to Western Regionals May 13

PhD student Chantal Rytz studies cardiovascular health of transgender population
Chantal Rytz
PhD student Chantal Rytz recently won the university's 3MT competition.

Chantal Rytz, a PhD student at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), counts herself amongst those who are anxious about public speaking. But you wouldn’t guess it if you watched her in the recent UCalgary Three Minute Thesis Competition (3MT) finals.

In fact, Rytz, whose supervisor, Dr. Sofia Ahmed, MD, a clinician-scientist and the lead of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute’s Women’s Cardiovascular Health Initiative, walked away with first prize in the virtual event and will be competing in the 3MT Western Regionals this Thursday, May 13 at 1 p.m. (MDT).

Seventeen graduate students from four western provinces will present their research to the general audiences using a single, static slide in only three minutes at the Western Regionals. This is the last stop before the national non-competitive 3MT showcase in November 2021 for Rytz.

Forty graduate students participated in this year’s UCalgary 3MT. Rytz won for her talk Estrogen Hormone Therapy in Transgender Women: Opening the Door to Options.

“I haven’t done a lot of public speaking, and I have always struggled with it,” says Rytz, who was born and raised in Calgary. “That’s why it was such a surprise for me when I won.”

Transgender women an understudied demographic

Rytz’s talk focuses on the impact of estrogen hormone therapy on the heart and circulatory system of transgender women and the lack of science-based evidence about this highly understudied demographic.   

Currently, gender-affirming hormone therapy in transgender individuals is in a way a guessing game as the guidelines physicians use are based on hormone levels found in cisgender individuals.

“There is little evidence-based research to guide dosage, frequency and route of administration (oral or non-oral),” says Rytz.

For transgender women specifically, the use of gender-affirming hormones increases risk of heart attacks and strokes, says Rytz, making it critical that research be done in this area.  

According to the U.S. Transgender Survey (2015) conducted by the National Centre for Transgender Equality, only about 40 per cent of transgender women use gender-affirming hormone therapy, although 80 per cent express a desire to do so.

Her hope is that her PhD research will help empower the transgender population — which is estimated to be between seven million and 35 million adults worldwide — with the knowledge necessary to make their own health decisions.

Rytz is passionate about supporting the transgender population in part because she has seen first-hand the struggles of the LGBTQ2S+ community, as she has friends and family members who are part of that group.

“I think there are ways all of us can choose to support underrepresented communities with our expertise,” says Rytz. She sought feedback for her 3MT presentation from the transgender community in Calgary to ensure it came across as supportive and respectful, as intended.

'An important area of research'

Rytz became especially interested in sex and gender considerations in research while completing her master's thesis work at the CSM with Dr. Marc Poulin, PhD. In this work, which focused on the differences in cellular stress pre- and post-exercise in older adults, Rytz learned that biological sex and gender play a big part in overall health. 

She was motivated to continue her research in sex and gender in Ahmed’s lab and decided she wanted to focus her project on the transgender population.

Ahmed says its an important area of research.

“The transgender community is an underserved population with respect to cardiovascular health care — this is at least partially due to uncertainties in how different forms of gender-affirming hormone therapy affect the cardiovascular system. Chantal's work will help people make decisions around gender affirming hormone therapy and cardiovascular health,” she says. She adds that Rytz is a fantastic student who is passionate about her work and making a difference.

Honing communication skills through the 3MT

Rytz chose to compete because she wanted to practise her communications skills.

“People always ask me what you are researching, and sometimes I think that the hardest thing to do is to explain your research easily and understandably to groups of people, like at Christmas dinner. I haven’t done a lot of public speaking, and I have always struggled with it,” says Rytz, who believes her research topic is of interest to both researchers and the public.

Through My GradSkills 3MT workshops and support, Rytz has developed skills to share her message with a general audience. Rytz believes now she has improved her ability to explain quickly and easily what she is doing and why it is important.

“I feel like if you can’t explain your research well, then you don’t understand your research well. If you can explain it in an hour, that’s great. If you can explain it in 10 minutes, that’s awesome, but if you can explain it in three minutes, that’s really impressive,” says Rytz. “That’s important because sometimes, someone only has three minutes to listen to you!”

Learning to advocate through research

Rytz has also became more confident in advocating for underrepresented communities through her research, while seeking feedback from people with lived experience to ensure she represents their stories properly in a way that is supportive and respectful.

“I was really worried that it comes across as if I’m telling a story that it wasn’t my own story. I did not live that life, and I don’t know what it’s like, really. So, I battled that for quite a while and really wanted to make sure that I am not trying to undermine the experience of being transgender,” says Rytz.

Rytz is excited to be doing such important work in Ahmed’s lab.

“It has been the opportunity of a lifetime,” says Rytz. “I am excited to give back to a community that deserves it.”

3MT Western Regionals May 13

Watch the 3MT Western Regionals on May 13, 2021 at 1 p.m., and vote for Chantal in the People’s Choice competition.

Sofia Ahmed is a professor in the Department of Medicine at the Cumming School of Medicine.  She is the lead of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute Women’s Cardiovascular Health Initiative and the sex and gender lead for Can-SOLVE CKD, a national research network into chronic kidney disease. She is a member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute and the O'Brien Institute for Public Health.

Dawn Smith is from the Libin Cardiovascular Institute.

Samaneh Ashoori is from the Faculty of Graduate Studies.