American Psychological Foundation

As a graduate student at Michigan State University, Kristen Culbert, PhD, sought to unravel the mystery of why some women are predisposed to eating-disordered behavior and attitudes. Prior research in this area suggested that prenatal testosterone exposure may lower disordered eating attitudes and behaviors, and account for the lower prevalence of eating disorders in males than in females.

In 2008, Culbert received the $2,000 APF Clarence J. Rosecrans Scholarship, which allowed her to study exposure to testosterone in the womb and the correlation to disordered eating later in life.

Culbert's dissertation examined whether the effects of prenatal testosterone exposure on disordered eating emerge during puberty in twins from opposite-sex and same-sex pairs. She found no differences in disordered eating attitudes and behaviors between opposite-sex and same-sex twins before puberty. However, after the onset of puberty, opposite-sex female twins exhibited fewer disordered eating attitudes and behaviors than same-sex female twins. These results were not accounted for by other variables, such as body mass index, mood, autonomy difficulties or being reared with a brother. The findings suggest that prenatal testosterone exposure may decrease disordered eating symptoms and at least partially underlie sex differences in risk after puberty. Data from Culbert's project highlighted the likely role of biological risk factors for disordered eating.

Culbert, who earned her PhD from Michigan State University in 2011, says the APF Clarence J. Rosecrans Scholarship "undoubtedly" influenced her career. "The financial contribution of this award assisted in making my dissertation project feasible, and thus allowed me to continue to build my translational program of research examining neurobiological, genetic and environmental influences on eating disorders," she says.

Culbert has been recognized for her work with the National Institutes of Health Clinical Loan Repayment Award, the Top 10 Newsworthy Abstracts of the International Conference for Eating Disorders and the APA Dissertation Research Award.

She plans to further study genetic influences of hormones on disordered eating risk and to identify key environmental factors that may moderate such effects. She hopes that her work will allow for a more comprehensive understanding of sex differences and developmental changes in the expression of eating disorder symptoms.