Kathleen Woulfe, PhD
"The Ludeman Family Center for Women's Health Research gave me a change when I needed it, helping me to become a faculty member and get things off the ground."Feb 15, 2020
Dr. Woulfe is an Assistant Professor of Cardiology, a 2019 Ludeman Center seed grant recipient, and a current BIRCWH scholar. She is researching cardiomyopathy, a disease that affects the heart muscle and can lead to heart failure.
What motivated you to pursue health research?
I grew up in the tiny town of Pinedale, Wyoming and remember always liking science. I first began to explore research as a pre-med undergraduate student at Washington and Lee University, looking at how nicotine affects brain development. By graduate school (Thomas Jefferson University), I really fell in love with research; when I saw heart cells from an animal continue to beat under the microscope it was so cool!
Following graduate school and a five-year hiatus to spend time with my three young daughters, I was so fortunate to find the Ludeman Family Center for Women's Health Research. Even though it was challenging to come back to work, I'm lucky to have a career that I love. I don't feel 'as guilty' taking time away from my family because what I do is so meaningful. I also like to show my daughters the value of a strong work ethic and responsibility and the importance of research.
Why is a focus on women's health and sex differences important to your research?
Better understanding how male and female hearts differ and how different stages of life affect cardiac function will help us to help us to understand both basic heart function and the impacts of stresses and diseases of the heart.
Dilated cardiomyopathy (DMC) is a condition in which the heart's ability to pump blood is decreased because the heart's main pumping chamber, the left ventricle, is enlarged and weakened. DCM prevents the heart from beating efficiently and reduces the amount of blood that is pumped to the body. We know that girls have worse outcomes than boys, but we don't yet know why. DCM is a type of heart problem that can lead to heart failure and is especially difficult to detect in children, with many either dying or needing a transplant.
To understand normal heart function and DCM, we have a specialized way of looking at the contraction and relaxation of the heart. There are only four machines in the world that make it possible to look at this closely and I have one of them. I believe our study may well be the only one focusing on sex and age differences in DCM.
What do you hope your research will help to achieve?
We know so little about basic sex and age differences in normal heart function and diseases like DCM.
Over the long-term, I believe that figuring out what is changing the mechanics of the heart in females and males and across pediatric, adult and aging hearts will give health care providers the ability to personalize and improve therapies for everybody.
The mentoring and support of the Ludeman Center has been invaluable in taking this critical first step, focusing on pediatric DCM and considering sex differences. Our early work has made it possible to receive a good score on my grant through the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health, and I'm hopeful through additional funding we will expand our research across the lifespan, with a continuing focus on sex differences.