Beginning with an undergraduate degree at Columbia University in the late 1960s, Professor Alison Fleming began her first piece of research using mice as subjects. “I was interested in how first-time mother mice differ from more experienced, multiparous mice,” explains Fleming. ”It seems I have not come all that far in my 40 years in the business,” she jokes.
Now a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga where she has been teaching since 1975, Fleming has studied and published close to 150 research papers on maternal matters for rats and humans, and is the recipient of many awards and honours, including being elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 2004. Fleming, who has had the distinction of Full Professor at U of T since 1986, is the Canada Research Chair in Behavioural Neurobiology and Genetics, and is also currently serving as the Acting Vice-Principal: Research at U of T Mississauga.
Over the years Fleming has investigated a menagerie of animals and their mothering instincts. After obtaining her PhD in 1973 from Rutgers University, where she was working at the Institute of Animal Behavior, exploring the role of olfaction in maternal behaviour in rats, Fleming studied rabbits in Berkeley, California, while working on circadian and seasonal rhythms alongside Dr. Irving Zucker from 1972-74. “My most notable study of that period was on the nursing rhythm in rabbits,” explains Fleming. “Rabbits nurse once a day and the question is ‘how do they know when to nurse?’” Fleming continued her postdoctoral studies in San Francisco where she began studying human mothering for the first time.
Currently Dr. Fleming is working on a number of studies involving various subjects such as monkeys, humans and rats. Fleming’s present work on rats explores the effect of maternal deprivation and of ‘replacement’ stroking stimulation designed to simulate maternal licking on newborn rat pups. Findings have indicated that pups who receive more licking-like stimulation in the early stages after birth behave differently than pups who receive less licking-like stimulation. Fleming describes these pups as “more attentive, less active, and less impulsive,” and they also “show more efficient later mothering behaviour.” Other studies being conducted in Dr. Fleming’s laboratory include the role of the neurotransmitter dopamine in mothering.
Fleming has also had her share of collaborations with other notable academics, having conducted studies in alliance with Professor Jenny Jenkins at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, as well as colleagues in Montreal. Fleming also has an existing study in progress with Dr. Steiner at St. Joseph Hospital where they employ functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study mothers suffering from postpartum depression. “We are exploring how postpartum depression affects brain mechanisms regulating mothering motivation and responsiveness,” says Fleming. Another study Fleming is conducting concerns teenage mothers and how paying attention, which is essentially a function of the prefrontal area of the brain, influences their ability to respond to their infants.
In the future, Fleming is interested in studying “brain activation patterns to pictures and cries of infants, and comparing reactions of mothers with non-mothers.” She also plans to explore how vitamin-D insufficiencies can affect pregnant and lactating mothers, and its influence on rats. Fleming found inspiration for this study from a workshop that was coordinated by U of T Mississauga’s Anthropology Professor Esteban Parra and Professor Dan Sellen from the St. George campus’s Anthropology Department. Parra investigates the effects of vitamin-D deficiency in human populations.
With such a full roster, Fleming’s busy schedule usually begins around 7:00 a.m. and comes to an end just after midnight, with a good portion of her day spent at the laboratory among a hardworking and devoted team, which includes students both at the graduate and undergraduate level. Fleming defines her experience working with students as a rewarding one. “I love students; they make my professional life worth living,” says Fleming. “I love to talk ideas with them, to argue with them, to watch them grow and mature, and to surpass me!”
Fleming’s friendly and encouraging nature has enticed a number of student volunteers to come work in her laboratory, and she appreciates the reciprocal nature of working with students, appreciative of the contributions they make to her research. “I think good, committed, hard-working, and enthusiastic students are what this business is all about,” says Fleming. “Both they and I get a lot out of the relationship.” And, as the field of psychobiology continues to expand, there are many more unique research studies and findings that will indubitably emerge from Alison Fleming’s team and laboratory.
By Lujayn Ali