Mentoring tomorrow’s leaders at Women’s Health Research

What do you get when you teach students to ask new and important questions’ A promise for a better future. 

Women’s Health Research at Yale’s Undergraduate Fellowship offers an opportunity for Yale students to work alongside faculty members focused on sex and gender as a fundamental component of biomedical research and medical practice. 

Heading into its third year, the program continues to attract students who display the curiosity, intelligence, hard work, and talent that will drive medical progress with an eye toward minimizing costs and maximizing health outcomes for everyone. 

ROSE DAVIS, a senior majoring in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology (MCDB) is pursuing a career as a surgeon. Rose’s WHRY fellowship involved working with cardiologist Dr. Lisa Freed, Director of Yale New Haven Hospital’s Women’s Heart and Vascular Program, who is collaborating with WHRY on integrating health research into the clinical practice.

"There was definitely a sense of trust that her patients had in her," Rose said. "She was treating the whole person. I could see by how they responded to her that they developed a special relationship. She was a fantastic mentor." 

Davis contrasted this type of patient interaction with her last three summers in which she worked as an intern with a plastic surgeon near her home on Long Island. 

"With cardiology, unlike elective medical care where the patient is specifically seeking your medical advice, the conversation with patients surrounding lifestyle and health choices is a more difficult one," she said. "You really have to work harder to partner with them to make the healthy changes that you know are in their best interest." 

Davis also gained an appreciation for the gap in knowledge that has persisted concerning women’s health and sex and gender differences.

"Before joining WHRY, even while taking the core courses for a premed major, I had not really considered how sex and gender could affect the outcome of a study," Davis said. "Now I appreciate the impact. I’m excited to share it with classmates and colleagues." 

This summer, Davis worked with a health care company in Darien, Conn., that manages bundle payment programs. After accepting the job, Davis’ mind quickly pivoted to what she had learned this past year. 

"This company manages service for patients undergoing acute care, such as a hip or a knee replacement," she said. "I immediately wondered if sex and gender differences are considered when setting the anticipated cost and length of stay in the medical facility. Maybe women will need a different medicine or heal at a different rate? If the service isn’t set to reflect these differences, I think money could be lost and care would be less efficient." 

This falls, she will continue to work with Dr. Freed as part of the WHRY team. 

"I enjoy being around strong women in the science field," Davis. "We’re fixing the gaps between genders - not only as researchers and medical practitioners but also as research subjects. It’s inspiring to me." 

MILANA BOCHKUR DRATVER , a senior MCDB major, worked in the human laboratory of Dr. Lynn Fiellin at the Yale Center for Health and Learning Games. As a WHRY fellow, Milana helped to design and develop video game interventions and assessments for adolescents and young adults. She considered the time she spent to be an opportunity to explore research different from her experience conducting basic science laboratory work with Dr. Clare Flannery in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences.

"It was very exciting to develop and test serious video gaming technology," Bochkur Dratver said. "Growing up playing video games with my brother, I had not previously thought about the power of video games to be used as a tool in research to promote behavioral change." 

Dr. Fiellin also is a WHRY-affiliated investigator who received WHRY funding to develop a game to help young black women navigate the difficulties of dating while remaining protected against HIV/AIDS.

One of the projects in which Milana contributed involved a game to help young people work through different scenarios to learn how to make better choices about smoking and e-cigarettes.

"Interacting with people presents a unique set of challenges in comparison to working at a lab bench," Bochkur Dratver said. "Collecting information and discussing sensitive topics with adolescents concerning health behavior allowed me to further develop strong communications skills." 

She expressed a new appreciation for how technology can be used to influence behavior to improve health outcomes. 

"Games can be very effective tools to shape behavior," she said. "Technology and mobile applications are already engrained in children’s daily lives. It’s incredible how natural it is for youth to navigate the games and how well the video games can sustain the participants’ attention. Designing interventions that are user friendly helps promote accessibility. It is very exciting how the science substantiates the potential these games have for promoting better decision making." 

This summer, Bochkur Dratver conducted clinical research with a family planning and reproductive health organization in Los Angeles. She hopes to carry her experiences at WHRY forward as her career develops. 

"I loved the experience at WHRY and would definitely recommend it 100 percent to any of my peers," she said. "I hope the program continues to expand and develop." 

HALEIGH LARSON is collaborating with Dr. Mazure, Communications Officer Rick Harrison, and Media and Graphics Specialist Carissa Violante on the center’s health literacy initiative. She is currently writing about the policy implications of emerging human genetic editing technology and is contributing to the production of a series of videos seeking to help young women better avoid their elevated risks associated with alcohol and stress.

"Before working with WHRY, I was not aware of the huge gap in knowledge concerning women’s health," Haleigh said. "I’ve spent summers working at the National Institutes of Health and Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine. There was a lot of discussion about shortfalls in research. But I didn’t hear much talk about the lack of focus on understanding sex and gender differences."

Larson, a senior majoring in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, emphasized that the center allowed her to develop skills in writing and editing to most effectively communicate health messages to a wide audience. 

"It was great to see how to take ideas and develop a hook and a clear message," she said. "To take some difficult concepts and crunch them down so I could easily explain them to my family and friends." 

Larson hoped to carry her enthusiasm into a career advancing science with practical implications for the health of women and men.

"I’ve been in labs led by women before, and I’m always pleased to see the power and reach of a woman’s perspective," Larson said. "Learning about the progress we’ve seen in the advancement of women’s health has given me courage to pursue my work with a focus on sex and gender." 

Larson will continue with WHRY this year as she continues to pursue a career as a physician researcher. This summer she worked as an editor and researcher at Yale Environment 360, a magazine published by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, as well as with Dr. Fuad Abujarad, Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine. 

Larson’s projects with Dr. Abujarad included developing multimedia tools to help patients of all backgrounds fully comprehend their informed consents, a screening tool to catch and report elder abuse during visits to the Emergency Department, and an interactive iPad-based program that helps women decide whether to undergo cancer treatments such as chemotherapy. 

After studying for the MCAT and serving as a resident advisor for the college’s summer session, Larson looks forward to completing WHRY’s health literacy videos this fall and testing their efficacy with focus groups. 

"We’ve done so much great work," she said. "And I’m eager to get it out into the world where it can do some good."

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For questions, please contact Rick Harrison, Communications Officer, at 203-764-6610 or  rick.harrison [at] yale (p) edu.

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