Meet the new lifecourse epidemiology division chief, Laura Jelliffe-Pawlowski, PhD

As we bid Maria Glymour, SciD, au revoir – not adieu! – when she heads north to become chair of the department of epidemiology of the Boston University School of Public Health, Laura Jelliffe-Pawlowski, PhD, will take the reins as chief of the division of lifecourse epidemiology. Laura will lead a group of researchers whose work focuses on the human life cycle, including pregnancy, birth and aging.

Jelliffe-Pawlowski began her career with a master’s and doctorate degree in child and human development. She says she was always an interdisciplinary researcher at heart, crafting her own PhD program at UC Davis to include policy work, population-level epidemiology, and exploration of the drivers of birth and infant outcomes.

After tacking onto her degree a summer program in epidemiology at the University of Michigan, she worked briefly with the Clinton Administration on intellectual disabilities, followed by a decade working on birth outcomes at the California Department of Public Health.

In 2015, Jelliffe-Pawlowski came to UCSF to lead the precision health and discovery arm of the just-launched California Preterm Birth Initiative, and soon joined the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and the Institute for Global Health Sciences as primary faculty.

Jelliffe-Pawlowski’s work on intellectual disability had gradually drawn her focus to preterm birth, which is a leading contributor to intellectual disabilities. Her interest redoubled when her own daughter, Maggie, was born prematurely in 2005. That experience pushed her deeper into her efforts to understand the causes of preterm birth and to look for ways to intervene.

“I do a lot of multi-omic work, which includes looking at immune and metabolic signals, but it also includes the exposome: the things in the environment that impact health and molecular signals,” she said. “The exposome may be more important than, say, protein signals, because it might be driving those signals. The goal is to bring it all together. I am really trying to get to solutions.”

For Jelliffe-Pawlowski, epidemiology is an essential tool in finding solutions to health problems, even those, like preterm birth, that don’t appear to have a straightforward solution.

She puts it this way: “I think that by identifying where the burden of disease lies, epidemiological study can help ensure that proposed solutions are aimed at the populations where a problem is most prevalent. In my opinion, an intervention that’s only available to some is not a real solution and will just exacerbate health inequities.”

Transdisciplinary collaboration is also a key ingredient in Jelliffe-Pawlowski’s vision for improved health and health equity. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that she sees herself as the incoming co-leader of the lifecourse epidemiology division along with the rest of the division faculty. She hopes to spur more shared research and to make division faculty and students feel more supported.

“If you ask me what my superpower is, I think a lot of the people that work with me would say I like getting people together with different perspectives and areas of work to bring out the ideas of others,” she said. “I see this as my primary role going forward – connecting people, supporting them, and thinking about ways we can do meaningful work together.”