Amelia Gavin’s great-grandmother lost two sets of twins in their infancies, a fact that haunts the social scientist as she studies the relationships of race, depression, stress and disparities in babies’ health at birth.
Gavin found her calling in graduate school when a classmate presented a study about racial disparities in birth outcomes. She was astonished to learn that regardless of education or income, black women were twice as likely to deliver preterm or underweight babies. “At the time, it was a given that if you improved the education of the mother, you improved the health of the child,” she says. “But then there was this disparity for highly educated black women.”
Now an associate professor at the School of Social Work, Gavin is looking at how social marginalization may expose black women to more risk factors throughout their lives, and lead to more negative and lifelong health effects for their children. “The constant wear and tear on one’s physiology has consequences, and it’s intergenerational,” she says. “It’s not entirely genetics. It’s the effects of lifelong minority status.”
Gavin was featured in a 2015 documentary film, “In Utero,” which had its premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival last year. The movie explores how the prenatal environment, combined with maternal experiences across generations, affects human development, and can last a lifetime.
A mother to twin boys, Gavin found that the filmmaker’s questions dredged up personal worries. “As a researcher, you try to present the facts, produce the research and move on,” she says. “But he got me to talk about my grandmother and my great-grandmother. It was really quite personal.”
Gavin was awarded a National Institute of Mental Health Dissertation Grant for her graduate work on depression and birth outcomes. Now she studies race, depression, pregnancy and socioeconomics. She is in the midst of several projects, including a proposed school-based study with 8- and 9-year-olds designed to minimize stress during early life. “If you can intervene in childhood,” says Gavin, “maybe you can improve subsequent birth outcomes.”
Prenatal care can’t mitigate the impact of stress on women’s physiology and, by extension, their babies, says Gavin. “Nine months is too short a period to adequately deal with the health concerns and social conditions of women who are most at risk of delivering a preterm or low birth-weight baby.”
The timing of the film shows a growing awareness of how the mental and physical health of the mother, and even the grandmother, can affect the lifelong health of the child, she says. “But there’s still much to do in untangling what it is about race that results in poor birth outcomes.”