2022 Pilot Awardee Spotlight

Kacie C.A. Blackman, PhD

Project Title: Thriving While Black: Black Birth Equity Workers Glowing Through COVID-19

Dr. Blackman is an Assistant Professor in the Health Equity Research and Education (HERE) Center, Autonomy Research Center for STEAHM and the Department of Health Sciences at California State University, Northridge. Further, she is a community health advocate for i.D.R.E.A.M. for Racial Health Equity and a member of the Santa Clarita/San Fernando Valleys African American Infant and Maternal Mortality Prevention Community Action Team. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Human Performance (Minor: Chemistry) from Howard University (with honors) and PhD in Human Nutrition, Foods, & Exercise from Virginia Tech. Dr. Blackman completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Cancer Prevention and Control in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of University of Southern California. Upon completing her fellowship, she was a Research Analyst at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, Division of HIV & STDs, Research and Innovation Sector. Dr. Blackman and her lab focus on community partnered participatory research approaches to support birthing persons and their families primarily through developing, implementing, evaluating perceptions, experiences, and health outcomes in perinatal care. This includes studying the roles of communities, environments, policies, structures, birth equity workers (midwives, doulas, lactation & childbirth educators), and health literacy on the health of birthing persons and their families. Moreover, Dr. Blackman examines ways to promote breastfeeding/chestfeeding equity and menstruation equity with an emphasis in Black families. Dr. Blackman is also interested in employing culturally appropriate mobile health technologies with underserved communities. Her current work also emphasizes how the structural and social determinants of health play an integral role on maternal and infant health. Dr. Blackman is a southern California native, daughter, sister, wife, aunt, mother of two girls and son.

What was your motivation for your project?
My motivation for this project is where my research experience and lived experience intersect. I am motivated that everyone should have a safe, dignified, healthy, joyous, and sacred pregnancy, labor, birth, and postpartum experience and outcomes. During my perinatal care with my three babies, I worked with a doula. Doulas provide continuous birth informational, emotional, and physical support. I discovered how important their role is in supporting and advocating for the mom/birthing person and partner in a non-medical way in medical offices and birthing spaces. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, I witnessed how doulas were not being allowed in hospitals and birthing centers since they were not designated as essential workers. You can imagine how stressful that could be with not being able to work with your pregnant client in-person and being forced to pivot to virtual or hybrid care. Despite that research and professional medical organizations recommend doula-assisted births since that is associated with positive birthing and postpartum outcomes, doulas were shut out of hospitals and birthing centers or had to leave when visitation hours were over. This is especially concerning given the alarmingly high maternal and infant mortality and morbidity rates among Black families. Doulas are one effective strategy in protecting and supporting Black families in the health care system.

Where are you now in your research?
Our team has recruited 41 people so far. Thirty-three participants have completed all project-related tasks.

What have been your biggest challenges? What surprised you most?
The biggest challenges have been recruitment and getting buy-in from doulas. There is limited research that includes doulas as participants, so for many of them they have never been research participants or do not know other doulas that have participated in research. Additionally, birth work involves sporadic work hours, so sometimes we have had to make adjustments such as rescheduling data collection due to a birth or prenatal visit. Some things that surprise me include how sparse some areas can be with the proportion of doulas that reside in an area and the distance some doulas are traveling to work with clients. Another issue that was surprising was the US Supreme Court overturning of Roe v. Wade. This impacted our research project in that we ask about what kind of doula people work as, which includes abortion doula. To protect participants, we had to adjust how we ask that survey question.

What experience did you gain in this project?
Learning how to develop protocol and adapt according to what is feasible to participants. Additionally, participants have shared that home-based saliva collection is relatively easy to do. Further, I learned how to create an online pre-screener that asks explicitly inclusion/exclusion criteria and how to develop an implementation (recruitment, retention, data collection) protocol. Moreover, I learned how to facilitate trainings with research assistants on how to implement the various project-related tasks. I also learned how to collect, process, store, and ship saliva. Lastly, I am now equipped to use Qualtrics to incorporate the online consent form and survey.

What do you hope to do next?
Our team plans to continue recruiting for this study. We plan to analyze the data and show evidence as to why doulas should be designated as essential workers. Also, provide salivary analyte results back to participants. Lastly, present at conferences, local doula meetings, local hospital meetings, and publish results in manuscripts, and secure more funding. I am grateful for this research funding opportunity to promote health equity in maternal and infant health among birth workers.

Chardee Galan, PhD

Project Title: Racial discrimination, mental health, and the attenuating role of Black youths' egocentric racial socialization networks

Hi! My name is Chardée Galán, and I am an Assistant Professor in the Clinical Psychology Department at USC and the PI of the Dismantling Racial inEquities Around Mental Health (DREAM) Lab! Broadly, our work in the DREAM lab focuses on 1) reducing inequities in child and adolescent mental health outcomes; and 2) improving access to mental health services among youth of color through strengths-based approaches. You can learn more about our work here: https://galanlab.org/

What was your motivation for your project?
Prior research has shown that racial socialization, or the transmission of implicit and explicit messages about race and racism, is a protective factor against the persistent and deleterious effects of racial discrimination. However, despite four decades of research linking racial socialization with reduced mental health problems in Black adolescents, extant research has focused on parents as the primary agents of racial socialization while overlooking broader familial and non-familial contexts. Our study, Project Support Net, addresses this gap by using an egocentric social network approach to elucidate the racial socialization networks of Black youth across multiple ecological contexts (e.g., family, peer, community). Our hope is that this study will advance our understanding of how racial socialization agents across multiple contexts may improve mental health outcomes for Black youth, potentially influencing the ways in which they navigate and cope with racial discrimination.

Where are you now in your research? We are knee deep in data collection right now!

What have been your biggest challenges? What surprised you most?
The biggest challenge we have faced has been with recruitment. Several barriers have historically limited the representation of Black families in research, including warranted mistrust of academic institutions as well as logistical barriers to participation (e.g., lack of reliable transportation and lack of childcare) that are largely the result of systemic racism. For Project Support Net, we have done our best to minimize these barriers to participation through several strategies, such as providing childcare for non-participating children, helping to coordinate transportation to and from campus, and training study personnel in socially just research practices. However, we also know that building trust with community members and organizations doesn’t occur over night, so we’ve spent a lot of time trying to build these partnerships, especially since we are a new lab (just wrapping up my first year at USC!).

What experience did you gain in this project?
One of the biggest things I’ve learned has been the importance of cultivating strong partnerships with community organizations when trying to recruit participants! Although we’ve certainly recruited participants via flyers posted throughout the community, most of our participants have been recruited via referrals from the USC Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI) and the Hidden Genius Project. We are so grateful to NAI and the Hidden Genius Project for referring youth and families from their organizations to our study!

What do you hope to do next?
We plan to finish up with data collection in the next few months, after which we’ll transition to running the social network analyses and preparing manuscripts and abstracts for submission. Our hope is that this study will provide us with the knowledge and preliminary data needed to submit a competitive R01 using a longitudinal study design and larger sample with sufficient power to conduct a more nuanced analysis of Black youths’ racial socialization networks. We are so grateful to the MADRES Center for their support of this project!

Zhongzheng Niu, MD, PhD

Project Title: Cumulative environmental pollution and intergenerational disparities in biological aging

I am a postdoc working in the MADRES Center to study environmental impacts on maternal and child health. I got my PhD in epidemiology in June 2021 from the University at Buffalo, SUNY with a dissertation using a life course approach to study cardiovascular disease where I found air pollution exposure in the uterus, childhood and adolescence, and adulthood was associated with increased risk of cardiovascular morbidity and mortality, and telomere length measures at various life stages play an important role in the observed associations. Since joining the Center, I have been working on a series of studies to examine the association of air pollution with birth weight in newborns and cardiometabolic health in pregnant persons, with a particular interest in identifying the sensitive window of exposure and the vulnerability associated with psychological and environmental stressors.

What was your motivation for your project?
The biggest motivation for the pilot project is to get a better understanding of the biological aging process in early life and how the surrounding environment could affect the process. It might be counterintuitive to think of aging in newborns or even unborn fetuses because they have two decades to develop until maturation, let along aging. However, evidence supports the developmental origins of aging hypothesis that early life growth and environmental pollution could downshift the trajectory of functional development with lower peak and accelerated decline, thus premature aging. Using the rich data from the MADRES cohort, my pilot project has the promise to provide a better understanding of how biological aging biomarkers, namely telomere length and mitochondrial DNA copy number, of the newborn and the mother, could be affected by the environment where the pregnant mother lived. These genetic-based aging biomarkers have the potential to heritage through generations, so we will also test if the environmental impact could affect intergenerationally.

Where are you now in your research?
We have been preparing and testing laboratory experiments to measure the proposed aging biomarkers for the past few months. The protocol works out fine. So this is the time we begin to run the full-scale experiment.

What have been your biggest challenges? What surprised you most?
The biggest challenge I have encountered is independence as a principal investigator, as most junior investigators may feel at the very beginning of career development. This is the first time I am in charge of every detail of a fairly complex project, from assuring CatLog of a PCR plate to hiring an experienced lab technician. What surprised me most is the great amount of help I have received by simply reaching out and asking for help from people who I might be too shy to ask in the first place. I am grateful for all the help I have received.

What experience did you gain in this project?
I have gained a lot of new experiences that would be important for my future career development, such as setting up a laboratory protocol in a new environment, hiring personnel from ad posting to making an offer, and communicating as a principal investigator.

What do you hope to do next?
I hope the full experiment will work out in time so I can analyze these freshly generated data to test the hypotheses we aimed in the proposal. I am excited for the upcoming results which will provide new knowledge into the environmental impact and its intergenerational effect on biological aging.

Intira Sriprasert, MD, PhD

Project Title: Effects of prenatal psychosocial stressors on sex steroid hormones and preeclampsia among health disparity population

My name is Intira Sriprasert. I am currently an assistant professor of research at the department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California. I am a clinical practitioner in OB/GYN from Thailand with a PhD training in Epidemiology. My research interest is reproductive health and cardiovascular disease. My career goal is to conduct research that could be implemented to improve health of women throughout their lives from birth, puberty, reproduction and menopause.

What was your motivation for your project?
Regarding my dissertation work on the association between sex steroid hormones and cardiovascular outcomes among menopausal women, I’d like to further explore the association between psychosocial stressors, sex steroid hormones and preeclampsia, the most common cardiovascular disease among pregnant women. Results from this pilot study could lead to methods for early detection and prevention of preeclampsia through measurement of sex steroid hormones during the prenatal period, especially in pregnant individuals affected by stress. Early intervention could significantly decrease preeclampsia morbidity and mortality, to both the mother and the fetus.

Where are you now in your research?
As the proposed study is a nested case-control within the Maternal And Developmental Risks from Environmental and Social Stressors (MADRES) cohort, we have identified the study population for the analysis. We also have pulled the previously collected specimens and sent to the laboratory for sex steroid hormones measurement. We expect to receive the results by next month and plan to proceed with the data analysis according to the proposed plan.

What have been your biggest challenges? What surprised you most?
The biggest challenges for me have been getting familiar with the collected data and specimens and selection of proper study population for the analysis.

What experience did you gain in this project?
I learned to implement the proposal into actual research conduct with great support from the MADRES investigators. I not only gained more understandings on the study design and analysis plan, but also had opportunity to learn the logistics of the epidemiologic study while working with multidisciplinary teams.

What do you hope to do next?
I hope to get preliminary data from the proposed study to form the hypothesis for external grant applications such as to expand the analysis to the entire prospective cohort study and propose and early intervention study to limit the development and/or progression of preeclampsia. I’d like to thank you for the MADRES center and NIMHD to provide this great opportunity for early investigators to learn and develop themselves for future research career.

Charlie Zhong, PhD

Project Title: Differences in the prenatal built environment and the effect on epigenetic aging among minority populations residing in California

My name is Charlie, and I’m a postdoc in the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences. I completed my PhD here at USC and was fortunate enough to stay here and build upon the work I was doing. My work has centered around using satellite-based images to estimate different types of pollution, such as air pollution and greenspace, and how that affects health.

What was your motivation for your project?
Something that keeps popping up in my research is how exposure to these pollutants are not always equitably distributed across race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status, so I was interested in looking at if these differences are affecting aging. Specifically, I am looking at epigenetic aging, a way to look at changes to how our genes are turned on or off, to estimate biological age. Epigenetic age better represents how the cells in our body are actually aging, which may be faster or slower, depending on the person, their lifestyle, and environment; than simply counting the number of days since you were born.

Where are you now in your research?
My research started with looking at inflammation and risk of developing lymphoma. One of the factors that can influence inflammation is the environment we live in. Living in areas of high pollution makes the body work overtime cleaning up these pollutants and this overactivity can lead to cancer. Beyond just cancer, I’ve started to look at sleep as well and how the environment, such as the artificial light we create, can mess up our sleep patterns. Sleep is another way our body repairs itself and disruptions to sleep can again lead to inflammation and poor health. This chronic inflammation is one of the triggers that leads to the body to biologically age quicker, and may explain why certain people get sicker earlier in life than others.

What have been your biggest challenges? What surprised you most?
I’ve mentioned several sources of inflammation and it appears to weave a complex web when it comes to health. One of the greatest challenges is disentangling this web to really understand what contributes the most to inflammation. We have much more data and more resources than ever to try to understand human health and part of that is using many complex statistical models, some of which are still being developed today.

What experience did you gain in this project?
For instance, these epigenetic aging tools were only initially developed about a decade ago. Since then, there have been over a dozen different methods created. Not just limited to how epigenetic age is calculated, but the way the epigenetic markers are measured can vary as well, adding on yet another layer of complexity. Satellite data is another area where we have seen improvements. While you may think this type of data as new, we have data going as far back as the 1970s! This can allow us to see changes over time, and newer satellites, much like newer cellphones, have much better sensors, allowing us to more accurately estimate pollution levels. Of course, just like with the cellphone cameras, these higher quality images take up much more space and can be difficult to work with.

What do you hope to do next?
This project will hopefully provide more insight into how our surroundings affect health. The next phase of my research will start to focus more on sleep, just one small strand of that interconnected web. While recommendations (for adults) say we need at least 7 hours of sleep, we are starting to understand, like with most things, that it is much more complex than that; that getting too much sleep, or even sleep at different times of the day, can negatively impact health. Some recent studies have already shown these sleep disruptions can lead to increased epigenetic aging; and I will aim to bring together the environment, diet, and other health behaviors to understand how they all contribute to health.