Robyn Stassen's public health degree and personal experience drive her research on heat and pregnancy

Her doctoral dissertation revealed information gaps in communicating the dangerous impact of heat on pregnant women and their babies

Robyn Stassen's public health degree and personal experience drive her research on heat and pregnancy

Growing up in a small town in Minnesota with a severe lack of sex education, Robyn Stassen couldn't have known that one day she would be teaching at a large university in a big Texas city and publishing research on pregnancy and heat-related illnesses.  

Her journey to becoming a public health leader in San Antonio started when she was still deciding what to major in while pursuing her bachelor's degree at Bemidji State University in Bemidji, Minnesota. 

"When I first went to college, I wanted to be a teacher, but I knew I didn't want to teach in schools," Stassen said. "But in one of my entry level classes, we read a book on community health, and I didn't know that that even existed, and I thought, 'That's what I want to do.' That was my moment. It was like a little spark in my brain. I was so excited from that moment forward to do community health." 

While earning her bachelor's degree, Stassen felt her world expand as she realized how much she had never been taught about health and sexuality.  

"In my second year I took a human sexuality class, and I didn't know any of the information," Stassen said. "I was like, 'Why do I not know this?' I knew that for pregnancy you had to have sex, but I didn't even know all the parts involved with that." 

As she studied health and sexual education, Stassen gradually realized she had a passion to share this knowledge and make sure other young adults had all the important information she had missed out on. 

"In my internship, they had me put together a contraception PowerPoint to teach to high school kids, and I was really excited about that opportunity," Stassen said. "I just felt like this is my thing. I'm really educated about it, and I can talk about it and not be embarrassed." 

But after graduating with her bachelor's degree from St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minnesota it was difficult for Stassen to find work in her field as public health jobs were scarce in the rural areas of Minnesota where she lived. Even after interning with a prominent public health organization, Stassen found herself working as a cashier at Goodwill and a medical assistant for a podiatrist.  

When she worked in a retirement home for a short period, Stassen was appalled at how often the elderly residents were mistreated or neglected. The experience only fueled her desire to work in a field where she could educate and protect the health of vulnerable populations. 

In 2011, Stassen and her boyfriend, who would later become her husband, decided to make a life-changing decision and move down to San Antonio, Texas to live closer to family members. Stassen decided to look into master's programs and saw that UTHealth Houston School of Public Health had a master's in public health program and a San Antonio location, making it easy for her to get involved.  

After completing her MPH in 2013, Stassen worked with Healthy Futures of Texas, focusing on teen pregnancy prevention, and later joined the Metro Health Department and San Antonio College, where she led sexual health and substance use education initiatives. 

During her seven years at San Antonio College, Stassen decided to continue her education at the UTHealth Houston School of Public Health and began pursuing a Doctor of Public Health (DrPH), which she completed in 2022.  

By the time Stassen graduated with her doctorate she had two little children, her youngest born while she was a doctoral student. Experiencing pregnancy and childbirth firsthand helped her see the many ways that she felt pregnant women weren't being heard or respected in these difficult situations, which gave her a renewed desire to advocate for them.  

With a push from her mentor, Lisa Zottarelli, PhD, Stassen channeled her interest in maternal and child health into exploring the impact of environmental factors, particularly heat, on pregnancy outcomes in her doctoral dissertation.  Stassen's research uncovered a critical gap in public health communication, specifically a lack of information provided to pregnant women about the dangers of heat exposure.  

Through a comprehensive analysis of federal, state, and city websites, she discovered that only a small fraction identified pregnant women as at risk from heat, and even fewer provided detailed information on the associated risks. 

Stassen's findings, published this year by Cambridge University Press, highlighted the severe consequences of heat exposure during pregnancy, including preterm birth, stillbirth, and congenital defects.  

Despite the scientific literature indicating these risks, public health messaging often failed to communicate them effectively. Stassen said finding this gap in communication made her realize the need for better public health strategies and for further research on the topic. 

"I was kind of in shock," Stassen said. "I just couldn't believe that we would have all this research that says heat may be doing X, Y, and Z, but then not telling pregnant women to be cautious." 

Stassen's dissertation laid the foundation for a new NOAA-funded grant project aimed at improving public health communication regarding heat exposure and pregnancy. The project involves surveying 200 women to understand where they seek information about weather and health and developing guidelines for disseminating this critical information effectively. 

Last year, before her final dissertation was published, and one year after completing her doctorate, Stassen was hired as a lecturer in the public health department at University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). Although she said there are challenges to starting over at a new institution, she has found the role to be fulfilling and helping new students understand the reality and importance of public health feels like a job she will always be passionate about.  

"What we really need to do is attract people to the public health programs," Stassen said. "You don't have to be working at the health department to be in public health. You can be a nutritionist, a biologist, an epidemiologist doing data science. Literally almost anything can be connected to public health. We do more than pandemics." 

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