In her Introduction to Public Health course, rising senior Shannon Murphy learned the reasons for higher death rates among nonwhite mothers and babies during childbirth. Among them: Chronic stress from being a person of color America and the lack of socio-economic and structural resources for marginalized populations.

A health sciences major with a strong interest in midwifery, Murphy plans to enroll in UVM training to become a doula —a birth coach who provides emotional and physical support before, during, and after labor. Murphy adores babies and works as a nanny. Ultimately, she wants to become a nurse midwife and nurse practitioner.

Racial disparities in health care caught Murphy’s attention. Understanding that, in the United States, people of color and their babies experience significantly worse health outcomes compared to their white peers, and that access to quality midwifery care improves health outcomes, prompted her to study the issue further.

“Everyone should receive access to high quality perinatal care, and the fact that they don’t needs to be remedied,” Murphy said. “There is such a clear link between the amount of money you have and the quality of health care you receive,” Murphy said.

Working with Health Sciences program director Deb Hinchey, Murphy applied for and received a Simon Family Public Research Award from the UVM Office of Fellowship, Opportunities and Undergraduate Research. The award supports students working with community partners to respond to problems in the community.

In partnership with the National Association of Certified Professional Midwives, Murphy will collect and compile data to identify barriers to midwife training and accreditation, with the goal of increasing workforce size and diversity.

“Gaining an understanding of who makes up the midwifery workforce will help identify areas of shortage and guide expansion. A goal is to train midwives to serve their own communities, increasing autonomy and improving access and outcomes,” Murphy said.

Access to midwifery care is linked to reduced rates of low birth weight, pre-term births and caesarean sections, Murphy explained. The individualized care that midwives offer is associated with decreases in postpartum depression and increases rates of breastfeeding, both of which translate to healthier mothers and babies. 

Participating in research as an undergraduate student will give Murphy a leg up when she applies to graduate school. Her findings may help inform midwife accreditation decisions and policies that will make a difference for mothers and babies.

“The possibility of having my research published is exciting,” she said. “To be able to do something so impactful is really amazing.”


Janet Lynn Essman Franz