You began your career as a physician. What brought you to public health and epidemiology?
I studied engineering, music, and human biology as an undergrad at Brown, but during my residency in OBGYN I became interested in community and public health. I pursued an MPH through the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars program at Yale, then joined the faculty at Brown in 1992. I collaborated with many brilliant people in community health for 13 years before receiving a K24 Career Development Award. This allowed me to enroll in Brown’s doctoral program in epidemiology and focus on women’s health, public health, infectious disease, and contraception. I completed my doctorate in epidemiology at Brown in 2007.
You were the primary investigator on the Contraceptive CHOICE Project, a landmark study that changed the contraceptive landscape in America. What do you think are the largest challenges facing access to reproductive care in America today?
Well, certainly there’s a major threat to women’s reproductive rights. You may not feel it as much in Providence as we do here in Indiana, but the overturning of Roe, I would say, is a reflection of the ideological bent of our political system. And now it’s gone beyond what we commonly think of as surgical abortion to medical abortion, with mifepristone now outlawed in Wyoming and threats to remove access in more states likely leading to more restrictions. And we’re seeing a lot of misinformation—the idea that this drug was approved too fast and that it’s unsafe to women’s health is just untrue.
I’m worried that contraceptive methods, which reduce health care costs and allow women to plan their pregnancies, will also come under attack. To remove access to contraception would be a terrible, terrible mistake from a public health point of view, and from a women’s health point of view.
With the Contraceptive CHOICE Project, an anonymous foundation asked our team to design a project that makes all methods of contraception accessible to all women. It was ahead of its time. Our public health system and our government need to see that making contraception low cost or no cost will benefit not just public health, but also health care costs, and women and families.
Restrictions on abortion and reproductive rights will lead to more maternal mortality and more infant mortality. That’s what the CHOICE project addressed: we reduced health disparities; we reduced unplanned pregnancies and teen pregnancies. It had a major impact. I’m very proud of that study.
What’s your advice to young people considering a career in public health?
My background in public health during my undergraduate days, at Yale, and subsequently at Brown in epidemiology and public health, laid a foundation; but passion and mentorship are key to success in public health. Pursue what excites you and find mentors who can guide you and open doors for opportunities. Embrace team science by working with great people and collaborating with experts in different fields. My first NIH grant was a successful collaboration between a statistician, a behavioral scientist, and an infectious disease expert at Brown. Building a network of scientists to work with is essential.