TWU’s Woo aims to improve reproductive care for Black women

Photo of Dr. Jennifer Woo

Texas ranks among the nation’s worst states for women’s reproductive care, but Texas Woman’s University faculty researcher Jennifer Woo, PhD, CNM/WHNP, is working to improve it. She has launched a research project to better understand the complex contributors for preterm birth, a significant factor in infant mortality.

Woo, an assistant professor in the College of Nursing at the Dallas campus, was awarded a $393,000 training grant in May 2022 from the National Institute of Minority Health Disparities (NIMHD). The NIH K23 (1K23MD016431-01A1) mentored career development award is one of the institute’s most coveted. The grant provides 75% salary release time for Woo to focus on researching preterm births in Black women for three years.

Black women in the United States are more than 1.5 times at greater risk for experiencing preterm birth than their non-Hispanic white counterparts, Woo noted, and 40% percent of neonatal deaths are due to preterm birth. Black infants die at a rate two and half times greater than that of non-Hispanic White infants.

Babies born preterm often have immature lungs and organs, which make them vulnerable to infections. Additionally, preterm babies are at increased risk for developmental delays.

Although there are several factors that contribute to preterm birth, Woo’s research is focused on understanding the psychosocial factors – such as depressive symptoms and exposure to racial discrimination – and on nutrient deficiencies and how they contribute to predicting preterm birth risk.

Woo is using data collected from the NIH R01 funded study, titled “Social Stressors and Inflammation: A Mixed Methods Approach to Preterm Birth” (R01MD001575). Carmen Giurgescu, PhD, RN, WHNP, FAAN, of the University of Central Florida is the principal investigator of the R01 study. Giurgescu also is serving as a primary mentor for Woo’s K23 grant.

One of the most important aspects of Woo’s work is understanding the molecular pathways by which racial discrimination, depressive symptoms and vitamin D deficiency may increase risk for preterm birth. To support that effort, Woo has partnered with W. Lee Kraus, PhD, Professor and Director of the Cecil H. and Ida Green Center for Reproductive Biology Sciences at UT Southwestern Medical Center, as her other primary mentor.

Kraus will help Woo incorporate molecular biology into the research. Woo recognizes the fact that preventing preterm birth needs to incorporate addressing biological needs such as vitamin D deficiency and psychosocial factors. Understanding the underlying molecular pathways will help guide appropriate interventions.

From some initial analyses, vitamin D status has been shown to be an important risk factor for preterm birth, which is consistent with the literature that has been published to date. In the cohort of Black women from the NIH R01 (R01MD001575) study, women who were vitamin D deficient were more likely to have a preterm birth.

”I am seeing that vitamin D deficiency was a predictive factor in my cohort of Black women of preterm birth despite controlling for other covariates, or reasons that could contribute to preterm birth risk such as maternal smoking, maternal age, body mass index, diagnosis of hypertension in pregnancy, and depressive symptoms,” Woo said.

“We are not getting better in preventing the risk for preterm birth.” Woo said during a recent presentation before the Texas Woman’s University System Board of Regents. Research has been conducted to develop medications and interventions for decreasing the risk for preterm birth, but they have failed to lower the risk for Black women.

In June, the Commonwealth Fund released a report noting that Texas ranked 49th among U.S. states and the District of Columbia in reproductive care for women.

Researching health disparities among different groups has been a strong area of interest for Woo. In 2020, the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities – a component of the National Institutes for Health – recognized Woo as a Health Disparities Research Institute Scholar.

A year later, Woo was selected as one of two participants in the Editor Immersion program for the journal Advances in Nursing Science. She also received a scholarship to attend Columbia University’s Skills for Health and Research Professionals (SHARP) training on Epigenetics on June 29-30, 2023.

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Assistant Vice President, University Communications

Page last updated 12:08 PM, July 19, 2023