Scientific Journeys: From Small Town, Oklahoma, to NIEHS
Brandy Beverly, Ph.D., a health scientist in the Division of the National Toxicology Program Office of Health Assessment and Translation, evaluates how traffic-related air pollution (TRAP) affects pregnant women, especially in regard to hypertensive disorders. High blood pressure during pregnancy can lead to complications that harm both mother and fetus, and even cause death.
Beverly conducts in-depth reviews of scientific literature to assess the risks posed by such pollution. She identifies research gaps and ways to enhance future studies, and she shares findings with healthcare providers and the public to inform their decision-making. In July, Environmental Factor spoke with Beverly to learn more about her work and career path.
EF: TRAP is a mix of fine particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and other harmful agents, but it can be overlooked as a pregnancy risk. What should people know about it?
Beverly: Most people understand that the environment can affect their health, but the idea that being exposed to pollution can lead to high blood pressure during pregnancy is not necessarily intuitive. Even with regard to physicians, I don’t think they are being taught this information.
What happens in pregnancy is not just a pregnancy issue — it can extend throughout a mother’s life. Research shows that women who experience hypertension during pregnancy are at a much greater risk of developing a cardiovascular disease later.
Hypertension during pregnancy is a leading cause of maternal morbidity and mortality. Black women are more likely to develop it and more likely to experience cardiovascular health problems down the road. I try to share this knowledge with the public because we need to think about all potential risk factors, including environmental exposures such as TRAP, to allow them to have the best birth outcomes [see sidebar].
EF: Your in-depth analysis of the scientific literature on this topic led to the publication of a major report in 2019(https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/ohat/trap/mgraph/trap_final_508.pdf). What comes next?
Beverly: Right now, I’m looking at other studies to identify biomarkers associated with hypertension during pregnancy. The goal is to fill gaps in research and help scientists develop animal studies that shed light on how environmental chemical exposures affect hypertension during pregnancy.
However, I am proposing that we tackle this in a comprehensive way. I want to collaborate with scientists across the institute to combine insights from animal studies, cell-based research, computational toxicology, and molecular epidemiology.
We want to focus on vulnerable populations, too. Some of my colleagues are looking at cardiovascular diseases in underrepresented, understudied, and underreported women to identify environmental factors that may heighten their risk. Together, we are trying to learn what makes some women more susceptible to cardiovascular problems.
EF: You joined the Division of the National Toxicology Program in 2017, after completing postdoctoral training at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. What drew you to science?
Beverly: Early on, I was intrigued by pregnancy, and I think that watching The Cosby Show made me want to become an obstetrician. I shadowed physicians from ninth through 12th grade as part of an after-school program. The summer after my freshman year in college, I shadowed an OB/GYN. One day, he showed me a book on the science of reproduction, and I became fascinated by the physiology involved in pregnancy. I eventually decided to instead pursue a scientific career.
Growing up in a smaller town in Oklahoma, I didn’t have an opportunity learn about research. Today, when I speak to young minority students, they’re surprised to see a scientist who looks like me. But I want us to be in a place as a society where I’m no longer the exception. I don’t want to be the only person of color in a room. Institutions need to do better at recruiting people from different backgrounds because diversity and new perspectives are critical to innovation.
(Jesse Saffron, J.D., is a technical writer-editor in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)