Jennifer Murray is a PhD candidate with the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia and a researcher in Dr. Patricia Janssen's lab. She is conducting community-based research to investigate risk factors associated with a high rate of preterm birth in a First Nations community in B.C. She will be one of five panelists at the Women in Science event on Feb. 10, 2022.

The nascence of her research project

I’m a settler of mixed European ancestry and worked for the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) in B.C. for a couple of years with their research team. I was a part of the maternal child health committee at the FNHA, and a First Nations community in B.C. approached us about their concern regarding their high rate of preterm birth — birth at 37 weeks of gestation or less. They had noticed a lot of women coming to their health centre and in the community who were delivering preterm.

Jennifer Murray
Jennifer Murray, PhD candidate, School of Population and Public Health, University of British Columbia and researcher in Dr. Patricia Janssen's lab at BC Children's Hospital.

A team of health providers at their clinic manually went through their records and found that in the previous 10 years, there was a rate of preterm births up to three times higher than what one would expect. 

I helped write a grant to look into this question and the grant was funded — which was fantastic— but then you actually need to carry out the work. Though I was working full time, I recognized that this would be a really good opportunity and I decided to pursue a PhD in public health to work with the First Nations community to focus on answering this question.

My approach is community-based, so the project is led by the First Nations community and I’m working as a trainee conducting research. We’re combining data from qualitative and quantitative methods to tell the whole story. We’re doing semi-structured interviews with women in the community, and combining their narratives around pregnancy experiences with medical record data. From there, we hope to figure out what’s going on in terms of preterm births, why the rates are high and, eventually, what we can do to reduce preterm birth in the community.

Our research was paused for about a year due to COVID-19. That actually lined up well with my coursework and going through the requirements of the PhD program. We’re still on track with the original objective. We’re recruiting women who delivered during the pandemic and experienced that added stress, as a way to look at the broad impacts of the pandemic on stress, isolation and access to resources. You can’t do community-based research these days without considering the pandemic’s impact. 

A passion for maternal health

I’ve always been interested in maternal health and that stems from early work just out of university. I had the chance to work with a few communities in Southern Africa and it struck me that moms and babies are the centre of the community.

If moms and babies are well and thriving, the community and everyone around them tends to thrive.

That’s what led me to work with the FNHA right after my master’s, where I received a lot of mentorship and support. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report came out around that time, and that was a huge awakening. I had conducted global health work in many countries around the world, yet I really didn’t know about the history of residential schools, what had happened in Canada and the ongoing impacts of colonization. It really shifted my focus away from global communities and onto what’s going on at home and learning more about Indigenous health. 

Maternal health is a really important part of community health and surprisingly under-researched. There could be a more prioritized focus on maternal health given its importance. 

Committing to the community

I remember meeting with the First Nations community’s team. They invited us over to the health centre where we talked about preterm birth and concerns around pregnancy. I also heard about all of the amazing initiatives already underway to strengthen resilience of Indigenous women, especially the women in the community, and the ways in which their lives had been disrupted. It felt like this is where I should focus my training. I have skills in epidemiology and biostats, and I’m growing my skills in qualitative research. This is a really important question and could lead to answers that might be relevant to other communities. It was a really warm, friendly environment with people who were very passionate about maternal health and it felt like OK, this is where I need to be. 

The most rewarding aspect

We have a wonderful research advisory committee that includes Elders, women from the community and a couple of moms who delivered preterm. They’ve been really instrumental in leading this project. There are two Elders who are retired from their work at the health centre. They’re super energetic, knocking on peoples’ doors and inviting people to participate in interviews. Like with any other project, I really couldn’t do it without them, so I’m really grateful for that. 

The people I work with are all really passionate about what we’re doing. I’ve been able to conduct one-on-one interviews with women as a part of the first phase of the project. Some of them last for over two hours and the women have been really generous in sharing their stories and lives with me — that’s been one of the most rewarding parts. I feel so privileged to hear their stories of strength and disrupted journeys, and everything in between. Sometimes their kids are in the room, so it’s pretty lively and fun. 

The most challenging aspect

The pandemic delayed our work about a year and continues to be incredibly challenging, particularly in a location with so many pressing health priorities. 

Still, I want to make sure we’re not pushing research on the community. It’s really easy as researchers to be aggressive and just move your agenda forward, but you always want to make sure you’re checking in, being led by the community and responding and listening to its members. Sometimes that can take a lot of time, but you need to be patient and respectful and move with the priorities and commitments of the community. 

As an example, we paused the research and I helped out with quite a few COVID-19 vaccine clinics because this was the community’s priority. We paused the research to ensure the health centre’s main message was about vaccination, not participating in a study. 

Advice for young women considering a career in science

Growing up as a young girl, I didn’t really know about public health or social science or the different ways you could be a scientist. I had an image of Bill Nye the Science Guy. Science has really changed, and there are so many different ways to be a scientist. Scientists don’t look like what we imagined as little girls growing up in the ’90s.

Anyone can be a scientist. If you’re a curious person, you’re a growing scientist.

Science is available and accessible to everyone. Keep on going and don’t rule yourself out. 

Join us virtually as we celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science
Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022
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