A Champion for Women’s Health, Diversity & Science

January 27, 2021 by Jennifer Nachbur

​For Professor Elizabeth Bonney, M.D., M.P.H., juggling the roles of scientist, clinician, mentor, and advocate has been the norm for decades. So, it’s no surprise that in a year turned upside-down by the COVID-19 pandemic, the delayed reckoning with racial injustice in America, and political turmoil, she has forged ahead with her science, delivered care on the front lines, and used this pivotal moment in history to raise issues of critical importance not only to science, but society.

Elizabeth Bonney, M.D., M.P.H.

For Professor Elizabeth Bonney, M.D., M.P.H., juggling the roles of scientist, clinician, mentor, and advocate has been the norm for decades. So, it’s no surprise that in a year turned upside-down by the COVID-19 pandemic, the delayed reckoning with racial injustice in America, and political turmoil, she has forged ahead with her science, delivered care on the front lines, and used this pivotal moment in history to raise issues of critical importance not only to science, but society.

The director of reproductive science research in the University of Vermont Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences, Bonney specializes in the changes that occur in the immune system during pregnancy and related impacts on both mothers and babies, including preterm birth, which occurs at much higher rates in Black and Indigenous women. With strong support from the National Institutes of Health over the past 10 years, her research has examined and elucidated the mechanisms that contribute to maternal immune cell development, and the interactions between the maternal immune system and vascular system.

Trained as a chemical engineer, Bonney says she follows a scientific approach that entails examination of how complex systems return “back to baseline” to understand how they work; for example, studying the immune and vascular systems postpartum to learn clues about the changes that take place during pregnancy in response to such influences as stress and diet.

“These studies are important not only for the understanding of basic processes, but also for their potential to provide understanding of the epidemiological finding that abnormal pregnancy portends increased cardiovascular disease risk in women,” Bonney says. An example of this is detailed in a recently published paper in Reproductive Sciences that features the work of Bonney’s lab and her collaborator, Natalia Gokina, Ph.D., research associate professor emerita.

In a 2020 paper she published in Placenta – an interview with her preterm birth research collaborator, Ramkumar Menon, Ph.D., of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, about the concept of a pre-pregnancy phenotype – Bonney essentially summarizes her research philosophy: “My position has always been that breakthroughs in this area will come from an inclusive, integrative, and interdisciplinary approach that hears the voices of multiple stakeholders, encompasses ‘outside the box’ thinking and utilizes novel methodologies.”

Bonney brings that philosophy to national leadership roles, which include service as acting chair of the Board of Scientific Counselors for the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Division of Intramural Research, as president, Council member and Reproductive Investigation Task Force member for the Society for Reproductive Investigation, and as Secretary General of the Preterm Birth International Collaborative.

In 2020, Bonney was named a member of the 2020-2021 class of fellows participating in the Hedwig van Ameringen Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine® (ELAM) Program at Drexel University College of Medicine. ELAM is the nation’s only in-depth program focused on preparing senior women faculty at schools of medicine, dentistry and public health for institutional leadership positions, where they can effect positive change.

Effecting change is something Bonney has been committed to for her entire career, particularly regarding diversity in science and medicine.

“Throughout her career, Liz has been actively involved in the support of underrepresented groups in science,” says Ira Bernstein, M.D., chair of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences. “Teaching and mentorship are equally important elements of her mission,” he adds.

Her service has included participating on the minority affairs committee for the American Association of Immunologists, more than five years on the Society for Reproductive Investigation’s Career Development and Diversity committee, more than four years on the Dean’s Advisory Committee for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and service as the inaugural faculty advisor for the Minority Association for Premedical Students.

"Liz has focused on mentoring women and people of color in the academic community for her entire career," says Anne Dougherty, M.D., M.S., associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences, Gender Equity Liaison in the College's Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and a former mentee of Bonney's. "As an active member of the Gender Equity Steering Committee, she's spearheading an effort to develop a data collection tool to assess gender equity across the Larner community."

Bonney notes that “I have recently become interested in the social and cultural factors that not only influence disease susceptibility, but also influence how scientists think. How for example, did we come to the underlying notion that pregnancy is a conflict between mother and baby- and not a collaboration?” she asks, adding, “How is it that we come to focus on race as a marker of genetic susceptibility and not of environmental exposure? How much of this is experiment and how much of this is structural racism?”

She admires the work of investigators like Northwestern’s James Collins, Jr., and colleagues, who recently published a Letter to the Editor in Nature on “States with more killings of unarmed Black people have larger Black–White preterm birth disparities” and hopes to eventually use animal models to link chronic stress, the immune system, and poor reproductive outcomes.

This month, Bonney published a Letter to the Editor of the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology on “Diversity is essential for good science and reproductive science is no different,” in which she and colleagues highlight a stark fact revealed during the pandemic.

“The coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic has revealed an inconvenient truth we have recognized in women’s health for decades: not all women have benefited equally from these advancements,” she and her coauthors write. “Over the last 30 years, our progress in the critical arenas of maternal mortality and birth outcomes has been largely incremental. If we are going to continue to advance science and medicine, we must recognize and acknowledge the profound toll that societal and structural racism has had on not just the output of science and medicine but on those who are the future of science and medicine.”

Bonney remains committed to the role that science plays in ultimately making healthcare better.  

“I dream of one day being able to bring social and basic scientists together to define integrated mechanisms that underlie complex disease in marginalized peoples,” she says. “To do this will require holistic thinking on a grand scale and buy in from several corners of society. Just as equity in healthcare is a value to be upheld, so too is the value of supporting and nurturing a broad range of investigators to enable them to ask questions, get access to resources, and answer questions that are important to them and their communities.”

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"The first woman enrolled at UVM’s medical school in 1921—exactly 100 years ago. Her name was Dorothy Lang, and she was a Vermonter, growing up less than 30 miles from Burlington in the small town of Cambridge, in the shadow of Mt. Mansfield."

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