May 3, 2021

Women’s Health Research Spotlight: Maria B. Ospina

Photo: William Au

Maria B. Ospina has an innovative multidisciplinary research program that focuses on how social and environmental factors during a baby’s first 1,000 days—the period between conception and a child’s second birthday—shape future health for the newborn and the mother.

Ospina, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and medicine, and Canada Research Chair in Life Course, Social Environments and Health, sat down with us to discuss her research.

What does your program of research examine? 

I examine how conditions in which we grow and live affect the future health of both mother and child. In particular, how social inequalities in the beginnings of life carry important consequences for health in the long run and how social determinants influence biological pathways to women’s health and children’s development.

We focus on social and environmental influences during preconception, pregnancy and early life. These are unique times to influence both the mother and child’s future health. Our goal is to produce solid scientific evidence informing better interventions to tackle unjust and preventable health inequities in population groups that have been historically disadvantaged and excluded from opportunities to lead a better life.

Why is precision health important for the future health of women and children?

Precision health can provide a unique avenue to characterize and address health conditions that are unique, more common, or more serious in women and children. One of the most important advances of sex- and gender-based research is the acknowledgement that a male model for health does not directly apply to women and children. 

As precision health holds the promise to tailor diagnosis, treatment and preventative interventions to individual characteristics of women and children, the approach should go beyond the traditional “omics” technologies (e.g. genomics) to include the “sociomic” aspects of health. 

Precision health has an immense potential to improve women and children’s health if the field ventures beyond the world of “omics” to integrate the sociocultural environment that governs women and children’s health. Some critics have argued that precision health can unintendedly widen health inequalities if it remains agnostic on the issue of the social influences on health and the lack of inclusion of socially disadvantaged groups in genomic research, for example. 

Therefore, precision medicine still has a pending task: to uncover the intersections between biological and social structures patterning women and children’s health outcomes to harness innovations that are impactful for all and that have a meaningful impact across the life cycle.

How has the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation contributed to your body of research?

My research has been generously supported since 2016 by the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation through a WCHRI recruitment grant. This support has been key to establish my research lab and create an optimal platform for training.

Why do you think it’s important to increase awareness of women’s health?

Awareness of women’s health has undergone significant transformations over the last decade. Despite remarkable advances in science, there seems to be a lag in both women’s representation as research participants, and in research prioritizing general and specific women’s diseases, conditions and determinants of health in Canada.

Women’s health encompasses unique biological, psychological and social challenges. We need to do a better job in creating awareness among researchers, health care providers, educators, trainees, policymakers, funders, and the public about the transformational power of sex and gender-based research to improve women’s health. However, these efforts will be incomplete if we do not recognize and address gender differences and inequalities affecting women and girls at different ages in life and the intersection with other social aspects of health and well-being.

Support from the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation enabled Ospina’s recruitment to the University of Alberta and allowed her to develop a knowledge-to-action approach, using epidemiological methods to produce maternal and perinatal knowledge in relation to the developmental trajectories of chronic diseases and social determinants of health.