Jessica Cohen, Jane Kim honored at annual Alice Hamilton Award lecture

Jessica Cohen
Jessica Cohen

April 16, 2024 — Health economist Jessica Cohen was honored for her achievements in research, service, and leadership at the 13th annual Alice Hamilton Award lecture. Presented by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Committee on the Advancement of Women Faculty (CAWF), the event also recognized Jane Kim, K.T. Li Professor of Health Economics, and dean for academic affairs, with the Marianne Wessling-Resnick Memorial Mentoring Award.

Lorelei Mucci speaking at podium
Lorelei Mucci

CAWF Co-Chair Lorelei Mucci, professor of epidemiology, opened the April 4 event by thanking the audience for braving a Nor’easter to attend. “I think this storm actually was Mother Nature’s way of really howling in support of the two outstanding women that we’re going to be recognizing today,” she said.

The Alice Hamilton Award celebrates a female faculty member for her impact in public health and future promise. It honors the memory of Hamilton, a pioneer in the fields of toxicology and occupational health and the first woman appointed to the faculty at Harvard.

“Alice Hamilton approached the world with deep empathy and curiosity,” said Cohen, Bruce A. Beal, Robert L. Beal, and Alexander S. Beal Associate Professor of Global Health. “She is exactly the type of researcher, advocate, and human being that I aspire to be.”

Marcia Castro and Jessica Cohen pose with the Alice Hamilton award
Jessica Cohen (right) and Marcia Castro with the Alice Hamilton award

The award was presented by Marcia Castro, chair of the Department of Global Health and Population and Andelot Professor of Demography, who called Cohen “an original thinker whose work is of substantial global health impact.”

Improving maternal and child health care

Cohen focused her lecture on her recent research evaluating the impact of maternal and child health programs and policies in the United States and East African countries. This work aims to address gaps in care that often lead to worse and inequitable outcomes for pregnant and postpartum people and babies.

“No health policy or program can change health without changing behavior,” she said. She’s currently thinking about behaviors related to attention—a scarce resource in health care settings that can be critical for saving lives in the early hours after a baby is delivered.

For example, Cohen noted that postpartum hemorrhage—the most common cause of maternal mortality in sub-Saharan Africa—can be slow, subtle, and hard to detect. But in her research in Kenya, she found that mothers were not receiving adequate monitoring after birth. Once the baby’s health was stabilized, it was considered up to the mother or her partner to report if she experienced worrisome symptoms, Cohen said.

This kind of gap in care is not unique to low-income countries, Cohen observed. She has documented a “postpartum cliff” in the U.S. health system, in which there is an abrupt drop off in support and insurance coverage after delivery. “Postpartum people are sort of like candy wrappers who carry the baby,” she said. “And once you take the candy out, you toss the wrapper.”

In a 2021 study, she documented that women just over age 35—considered to be advanced maternal age in clinical obstetrics—had increased prenatal monitoring and better pregnancy outcomes compared to those who were only a few months younger. She said that in these cases having a pregnancy that is considered high-risk was a good thing. “It means someone pays closer attention to you.”

Cohen has been working with clinicians in the U.S. and in East Africa on new approaches to health care delivery for postpartum people and newborns and has seen positive results in trials. She said that she hopes to start a center at the School for stillbirth prevention research.

Honoring a legacy of mentorship

Francine Laden and Jane Kim
Jane Kim (right) and Francine Laden with the Marianne Wessling-Resnick Memorial Mentoring Award

Francine Laden, professor of environmental epidemiology, presented the Marianne Wessling-Resnick Memorial Mentoring Award to Kim. The award honors the memory of Wessling-Resnick, a professor of nutritional biochemistry, founding member of CAWF, and recipient of the 2019 CAWF Mentoring Award.

Kim called the award one of the most meaningful that she’s received in her career. She said that it was through her service to CAWF, of which she is a former chair, “that I caught the buzz to want to lean into leadership positions here.” She said that her own mentors at the School, including former advisor Meredith Rosenthal and Wessling-Resnick, “not only guided my journey but were role models for good mentorship.”

— Amy Roeder

Photos: Kent Dayton