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NIH study funds new way to measure link between racial inequity and preterm births

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Scientists are trying to find new ways to measure the link between racial inequity and premature birth, says Furman public health researcher Shaniece Criss.

A $3.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health could help her research team find a way to do just that, she said.

portrait of shaniece criss
Shaniece Criss.

“Health disparities with preterm births have been present in our society for so many generations,” said Criss, who is assistant professor of health sciences.

“This research gives us the opportunity to look at how our social environment impacts pregnancy outcomes,” she added, “and can give us insight into how our country can reduce these disparities.”

The grant was awarded to Thu Nguyen from the University of California at San Francisco, who is the principal investigator.

Criss, who is a research consultant on the project, works with Nguyen as part of a collaborative of researchers from around the country called Big Data for Health Equity that examines disparities in health.

As a qualitative researcher on the project, she will be designing and conducting online focus groups. While quantitative research focuses on statistics, qualitative research looks to understand the meaning of experiences, she said.

The focus group participants will describe their daily lives and experiences with race, said Criss, adding that up to 200 people representing racial groups from all over the country will provide input.

“We’re going to look at making a measurement for area-level racial bias on Twitter and linking it to adverse birth outcomes,” she said. “The previous work … found some connections between negative sentiment about race and premature birth. This will build upon that work.”

The researchers will collaborate with the California Preterm Birth Initiative Community Advisory Board and other entities across the country to ensure they get feedback that represents the community, she said.

The five-year NIH grant seeks to track and detect changes in area-level racial bias, identify local and national race-related events, and to determine the impact of changes in racial bias on changes in adverse birth outcomes, she said. It also looks to identify protective factors for those outcomes.

Along with Big Data for Health Equity, which includes researchers from the Universities of California at San Francisco, Los Angeles and Berkeley, and the University of Maryland, Criss has been researching how people talk about race on Twitter for some time.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, for instance, they’ve looked at about one million Twitter posts and documented a 68.4-percent increase in negative tweets about Asians between November 2019 to March 2020, she said.

While there is increasing evidence for the role of racial bias in explaining disparities in preterm birth, science needs more methods to evaluate it, and she hopes this new grant will help to find a way to do that.

Criss said she’s excited to work on a national level project that’s supported by the NIH.

“Faculty members in a liberal arts institution are focused on teaching, which I love,” she said. “It’s also nice to have the support to do national-level research.”

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