Better births


Tyan Parker Dominguez ’93 works to unravel the data behind a troubling public health issue — African American women of all economic classes have unusually high infant mortality rates and at-risk pregnancies. Her findings point to the chronic stressor of racism.

The contractions came early and often. So did the headaches. For Austin nonprofit worker Eva Roberts, each of her four pregnancies developed with unerring, and unsettling, similarity.

All of her children were born preterm, and none was heavier than 4 pounds, 15 ounces. Roberts’ second child, son Delbert, arrived 14 weeks early. At 1 pound, 13 ounces, the infant spent four precarious months in the neonatal intensive care unit. Today, Delbert is 25 and healthy.

Tyan Parker Dominguez ’93 studies the impact of psychosocial pressures -- like racism -- on African-American women’s pregnancies and births. Photo by Tommy LaVergne

“It was stressful,” recalled Roberts, who works for AIDS Services of Austin, which supports those affected by HIV and AIDS. “I started my prenatal care early and I was eating right. I took all of the right precautions and felt that everything should have gone well.”

For Parker Dominguez, it’s a familiar refrain. A clinical associate professor of social work at the University of Southern California, Parker Dominguez has worked for nearly two decades to crack a public health riddle that long has vexed researchers. Why do African-American women, including Roberts, face twice the risk of experiencing pregnancies that result in early delivery, low birth weight or even infant death? National Vital Statistics show that black infants are twice as likely to die in the first year of life as white infants.

“Given all of the advances we’ve had in public health and neonatal medicine, we’re still seeing this disparity,” said Parker Dominguez, who was a member of the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services’ Advisory Committee on Infant Mortality from 2011 to 2013 . “The mystery part of it intrigues me and keeps me engaged.”

Among researchers, a consensus is developing that “psychosocial stresses,” such as racism, play a unique role in African-American pregnancies.

This story is featured in the winter 2015 issue of Rice Magazine. To read the rest of the story and see other stories, visit:

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