Expert in women’s environmental health discusses her path, research

Tamarra James-Todd’s path to public health started when she tagged along to work with her mother, a microbiologist.

James-Todd, Mark and Catherine Winkler Assistant Professor of Environmental Reproductive and Perinatal Epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, discussed her background and research in an April 1, 2021, Q&A on the Environmental Health Defense Fund Health blog.

Watching her mother work at the Kansas City VA Medical Center, James-Todd thought about becoming a doctor. In college, though, she was drawn to sociology and math, and sought to combine those disciplines with her interest in the human body and health—and found epidemiology.

In her research, James-Todd studies how the use of personal care products during pregnancy may impact pregnancy health. She has also studied hair care products marketed to Black women, and has found that 50% of these products—such as hair oils and chemical straighteners—contain hormone-disrupting chemicals, which can have health impacts including early onset of puberty, a risk factor for breast cancer.

James-Todd noted that, when she started researching environmental health disparities and would present her findings, “there was little understanding of social and cultural drivers of environmental chemical exposures and how these differences could contribute to health and health disparities. Only now, 20 years later, people are starting to think, ‘Oh, maybe we should ask why the disparity exists and not just be making an assumption.’”

Read the Environmental Defense Fund Health blog Q&A: Chemicals in hair products, making rent as a grad student, and more: A conversation with Dr. Tamarra James-Todd