July 13, 2021
Health Starts at Home
With recent promotion, Dietrich College alumna’s research continues to help new moms weather the storm
By Kristy Locklin
When Dr. Jennifer Lynn Barkin was a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University, she vowed to overcome her fear of mathematics. In 1997, she graduated from the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences with a major in statistics.
“I think fear of math is extremely common,” Jennifer says. “The faculty in the statistics department at CMU showed us how it can be applied towards understanding human health and disease patterns — that made all the difference for me. I received a wonderful education at CMU and a degree that holds up in any forum.”
Jennifer’s promise not only benefited her. It has helped countless people around the world, particularly new mothers and children.
Through human health data research and focus groups with new moms, Jennifer developed an assessment, known as the Barkin Index for Maternal Functioning. The 20-item tool measures how people cope with daily life in the 12 months following childbirth. It addresses not only physical functioning, but mental and emotional well-being, too.
“It’s pretty well-recognized at this point that the system doesn’t adequately address maternal mental health,” she says. “Ideally, mental health professionals would reside in every clinician’s office.”
The 31 moms who participated in the research rated phrases related to parenting confidence — such as “I am able to relax and enjoy time with my baby,” and “My baby and I are getting into a routine” — to self-care-related statements including “I feel rested,” “I am taking good care of my physical needs” and “I am getting enough adult interaction.”
"My job lies at the intersection of research and advocacy; it is a public-facing role and that works very well for me. The environment at Mercer has promoted growth in ways I only could have dreamed of 10 years ago."
Jennifer created the index while finishing her dissertation at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, where she earned a Ph.D. in epidemiology and a master’s degree in biostatistics.
The questionnaire was validated in 2010 and was subsequently used by Sage Therapeutics™ to test a postpartum depression drug called Zulresso™. The index has been commercially licensed multiple times and used in various research studies. If academics or nonprofit organizations want to use the tool, it’s free.
“When your intellectual property gets picked up by a drug company it’s a big boost in credibility,” Jennifer says. “It’s been culturally adapted and validated and is seeing a lot of use in the Middle East right now.”
Jennifer went on to become an associate professor of community medicine and obstetrics and gynecology at the Mercer University School of Medicine in Macon, Georgia, where she continues to mentor undergraduate, master’s, doctoral and medical students on research related to perinatal mental health and other issues.
On July 1, Jennifer assumed the role of vice chair of the Department of Community Medicine. She co-directs three academic programs that teach students the basics of non-biological determinants of health, health disparities, rural health care, cultural competence, research design, epidemiology, biostatistics and health care systems.
“I wouldn’t do well in a lab all the time,” she says. “My job lies at the intersection of research and advocacy; it is a public-facing role and that works very well for me. The environment at Mercer has promoted growth in ways I only could have dreamed of 10 years ago. It has allowed me to take the stellar education and training I received at CMU and Pitt and leverage it for optimal influence and across sectors.”
"Our job is to educate students, clinicians and the public regarding the impact of climate change on human health and clinical practice. It's a whole new frontier, and it's happening so fast it feels like I'm drinking from a fire hose."
Jennifer’s day-to-day focus hasn’t shifted from maternal mental health. The mother of two is researching the impact of climate change on human health, specifically on child and maternal mental health, when people are displaced by wildfires, flooding and severe storms.
“It’s the biggest public health crisis,” she says. “If you’re a pregnant woman watching this happen in a high-risk area like Puerto Rico, you’ve got to be worried.”
She serves on the executive committee for the Georgia Clinicians for Climate Action (GCCA) and recently received the Vanguard of Environmental Justice Award from Rep. Mandisha Thomas (D-ATL) of the Georgia House of Representatives.
In May, during Clean Air Month, Jennifer served on a Mothers & Others for Clean Air panel of experts to discuss the cumulative effects of air pollution and the role of environmental racism.
For Jennifer, who was born and raised in Pittsburgh, which is consistently ranked in the top cities for air pollution by the American Lung Association, it’s personal.
“We’re building out this whole line of research on child and maternal mental health, and the momentum is in the environmental movement,” she says. “Our job is to educate students, clinicians and the public regarding the impact of climate change on human health and clinical practice. It’s a whole new frontier, and it’s happening so fast it feels like I’m drinking from a fire hose.”