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Emory researcher shares insights with first lady, national leaders at White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research Roundtable
Round table attendees stand with first lady Jill Biden

Leaders in the investment, health care, education and research spaces gathered Feb. 7 in Atlanta for an exclusive roundtable discussion with first lady Jill Biden as part of the White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research.

Leaders in the investment, health care, education and research spaces gathered Feb. 7 in Atlanta for an exclusive roundtable discussion with first lady Jill Biden as part of the White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research.

Tené T. Lewis, professor of epidemiology at Rollins School of Public Health, was one of 10 participants included in the all-women roundtable, and the only person in the group to identify as an active health researcher.

“I’m here today because I heard about the amazing work that’s happening in Atlanta, where universities, entrepreneurs, investors, companies and city leaders are coming together to drive innovation in women’s health,” said Biden, who noted that even though women make up half the population, research on women’s health has long been underfunded. 

“We need research at universities to develop breakthroughs. Investors who believe in those ideas. Startups that bring those ideas to the market. Doctors who translate those ideas into treatment plans. And government and advocates who help bring everyone together,” she said.

“Atlanta has been doing this for decades — helping push progress forward in women’s health. And I know this city will remain at the forefront of this work. So, we came here to listen to your insights and your experience — to hear about the work you’re doing and the path you see ahead.”

Atlanta leaders shine light on major women’s health issues

Lewis was given the opportunity to speak first, and provided a brief introduction of herself, and the type of work she does at the Rollins School of Public Health, where she focuses on women’s health research. Lewis noted that she currently has two NIH-funded cohorts in Atlanta of more than 800 African American women: one focuses on understanding early markers of vascular disease and the other looks at early markers of vascular disease in women with systemic lupus.

Additional participants on the roundtable included:

  • Linda Goler Blount, president of the Black Women’s Health Imperative and chair of the Rare Disease Diversity Coalition
  • Stephanie Diaz, manager of Industry Discovery and Research at Catalyst by Wellstar
  • Maria D. Toler, founding and managing partner of Steel Sky Ventures
  • Valerie Montgomery Rice, president and CEO of Morehouse School of Medicine
  • Eloisa Klementich, president and CEO of Invest Atlanta
  • April L. Spencer, chief operating surgeon at Dr. Spencer’s Global Breast Health & Wellness Center
  • Monica M. Bertagnolli, director of the National Institutes of Health
  • Carolyn Mazure, chair of the White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research

Vascular aging and the impact of stress on Black women’s health

Lewis received the first question of the roundtable discussion. Mazure asked her to talk about her current research and how a potential partnership with a corporate entity might be particularly useful in implementing her work into the community.

Tené T. Lewis

Epidemiology professor Tené T. Lewis was one of 10 roundtable participants and the only person in the group to identify as an active health researcher.

“For the past several years, I've been looking at early vascular aging in a cohort of African American women. And one of the things about early vascular aging is that it’s really the road to so many different adverse outcomes,” Lewis said. “Hypertensive disorders of pregnancy are one of the leading causes of maternal morbidity and mortality. You think about heart disease, you think about stroke. Then there’s also Alzheimer's disease in African Americans, which is believed to be more vascular. This really is something that impacts women across the lifespan.”

Vascular aging affects Black women across the board. Many studies have looked to see if there is a correlation between genetics and vascular aging in Black women and have been inconclusive. Much of Lewis’s work has been to understand the root causes, and she has been approaching it through the lens of the unique stressors that come with being a Black woman in America.

“Those studies range from the stressors that women experience themselves as well as those experienced by their families, network stressors and discriminatory stressors.”

In response to the moderator’s question about opportunities for partnership, Lewis shared the need for blood pressure cuffs that are inclusive of larger bodies. In one of her current studies, she is measuring ambulatory blood pressure in Black women and sends them home with blood pressure cuffs to accurately measure their blood pressures overnight to assess their overall risk.

“Women have different body shapes. We currently do not have cuffs that properly fit larger women’s arms or thighs,” Lewis said. “We know that pulse wave velocity, or stiffening of the arteries in the body, is one of the markers that changes over the course of menopause, and that's particularly true for African American women. But we are at a loss to assess that in these women because of these equipment failures. This has led to the question of how can I begin to partner with entities that are thinking about women’s bodies and women’s health and have a desire to be inclusive of all types of women, all body sizes?”


Addressing public health inequities

A range of additional public health issues were mentioned during the hour-long discussion. Public health inequities — particularly among Black women — received a major focus, including as it relates to breast cancer prevalence and mortality, maternal mortality, uterine fibroids and menopause-related risk factors.

Other discussion covered the need for more patents by women, greater investment in women-owned businesses, increased research funding for women’s health and the need for women to instigate the changes they want to see and to bring men along with them.

As Blount noted in closing, “Too much of research has treated women like female versions of men, and that’s not who we are.”

About the White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research

Launched in late November 2023, the first-ever White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research is led by the Office of the First Lady and the White House Gender Policy Council. It will work to:

  • Establish an initiative consisting of executive departments and agencies across the federal government.
  • Deliver concrete recommendations to advance women’s health research.
  • Take a targeted, high-impact approach by selecting priority areas of focus.
  • Engage the scientific, private sector and philanthropic communities.

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