Pandemic stress takes toll on new moms

In 2018, Elaine Kim ’22 arrived on Brown’s campus thinking she’d concentrate in international relations. But she also had a passion for psychology, and was curious to try her hand at clinical research.

That curiosity led her to Laura Stroud, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior and the director of the Center for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine at The Miriam Hospital. Her lab looks at ultrasounds, placental epigenetics, and infant behavior to understand how a pregnant person’s mental health and substance use may affect their child. 

“Dr. Stroud’s lab was perfect because she encompasses both biology and psychology,” Kim says. She applied to join the lab and has been there ever since.

“During the school year, we’re working on projects that are overall for the lab, and things that pique curiosity, but often you don’t have time to pursue looking further into it,” Kim says. 

As the pandemic took hold, Stroud wondered how the stress and isolation were affecting her research participants. Her team started recruiting from the lab’s existing study population and created surveys to administer over Zoom, but the project needed a leader. 

Kim, who’s from Los Angeles, wanted to be that leader—but “being able to afford living in Providence is definitely a concern of mine,” she says. A lab member suggested she apply for an Undergraduate Teaching and Research Award (UTRA), which would offer the financial support she would need to work full time there for the summer. 

“One of great things about an UTRA is it prompts you to have conversations with your PI … [and] to take more initiative and find a project for something you’re passionate about,” Kim says. The COVID survey “was the perfect project to move forward into an UTRA because it will be a shorter-term project than most of our long-term research is.” Proposal in hand, she approached Stroud, who agreed to sponsor Kim’s award.

“I was thrilled when Elaine came to me with the idea of focusing on our COVID survey data to investigate the impact of the pandemic on pregnant women’s mental health and substance use,” Stroud says. “We had been very excited to look at this data but did not have a point person taking the lead, so it was the perfect fit for Elaine and for an UTRA project.” 

Stroud says Kim did everything “from tracking down participants to complete the survey through data management and analyses.” The study was still ongoing when Kim’s 10-week UTRA concluded, but she will continue to work on it during the school year. They may expand the project into an honors thesis, Stroud adds.

So far the survey findings are as Kim expected: like the general population, many respondents reported struggling with loneliness, worsening mental health issues, and more substance use. Nonetheless, she says the study will be “eye opening” to some.

“When you see things like, pregnant women are more prone to use substances, or they are more prone to mental health issues, [it demonstrates that] narrowing things down to specific groups is really important because it helps redirect resources and draws overall awareness,” she says. 

Now in her senior year, Kim, an immunobiology concentrator, is studying for the MCATs. She knows from her experiences in Stroud’s lab as well as her work as a certified EMT with Brown EMS that she likes working with patients. She says her UTRA project gave her a new perspective on a potential medical career.

“A lot of times in medicine we focus only on physical health,” Kim says. “Being able to see how participants feel and talk to them about their mental health piqued my curiosity in a different direction.”

But before applying to medical school, Kim will take a gap year for clinical research—a decision validated by her summer in Stroud’s lab. “What is so special about the UTRA experience is that it really allows brilliant students like Elaine the time and space to dig into an independent research question,” Stroud says. “It can really influence them to pursue research in their graduate or career plans.” 

“It really clicked,” Kim agrees. “This is what research is like, this is what pursuing your own ideas is like. It’s very gratifying.”