The UNC Center of Excellence in Maternal and Child Health Education, Science and Practice
The Department of Maternal and Child Health (MCH) at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health is one of 13 Centers of Excellence in Maternal and Child Health Education, Science, and Practice programs across the country funded by the Maternal and Child Health Bureau (MCHB) of the Health Resource and Services Administration (HRSA). The overall mission of these Centers is to support graduate and postdoctoral MCH training to prepare the next generation of public health leaders focused on improving the health of women, infants, children, youth, and their families. Master’s students, doctoral students, and postdoctoral scholars trained in the Centers enhance their MCH knowledge and skills and gain practical experience by collaborating with MCH communities and Title V MCH partners.
UNC Center of Excellence (CoE) Key Faculty
Sandra L. Martin, PhD, CoE Director, Professor and Associate Chair for Research, Department of Maternal and Child Health, UNC
Dr. Martin’s research, teaching, and public health service focuses on gender-based violence. She has authored more than 100 peer-reviewed manuscripts, book chapters and reports on a wide range of violence-related concerns including sexual violence, domestic violence and child maltreatment. Dr. Martin teaches the MCH course Gender Based Violence (MCFH 732).
Meghan Shanahan, PhD, CoE Deputy Director, Associate Professor, Department of Maternal and Child Health, UNC
2021 McGavran Award for Excellence in Teaching. Dr. Shanahan’s research focuses on improving the health and developmental trajectories of children, with an emphasis on adverse events, such as maltreatment, that potentially influence these trajectories and prevent children from realizing their full potential. Dr. Shanahan also has experience examining the impact of substance use and material hardships on parenting and child development and evaluating prevention strategies. Dr. Shanahan teaches the MCH course Foundations in Maternal and Child Health (MCFH 701).
Dorothy Cilenti, DrPH, CoE Faculty, Associate Professor, Department of Maternal and Child Health
Dr. Cilenti has worked in local and state public health agencies in North Carolina for more than 20 years. She is primarily interested in improving systems of care for vulnerable women and children. Dr. Cilenti is the Director of the National Maternal and Child Health Workforce Development Center which oversees training and technical assistance to state agencies implementing health transformation. Dr. Cilent also directs the Maternal Health Learning and Innovation Center. Dr. Cilenti teaches the MCH courses Health Transformation (MCFH 745) and Leadership in Maternal and Child Health (MCFH 890).
Anna Austin, PhD, CoE Faculty, Assistant Professor, Department of Maternal and Child Health
Dr. Austin’s research focuses on understanding risk and protective factors in child health and development and examining the impact of population-level programs and policies on child and family wellbeing. She has experience and interest in applying advanced statistical methods, linking existing survey and administrative data sources, and partnering with state and local agencies to conduct research on child maltreatment, substance use in pregnancy, and material hardship among families.
Iyana Alewine, CoE Program Manager, Department of Maternal and Child Health, UNC
Iyana Alewine has extensive student services experience supporting undergraduate and graduate students completing their degree requirements. In this capacity, Iyana connects students to helpful University resources, assists with interpreting University policies, facilitates the execution of various University procedures and actively monitors students’ progress toward program completion. Her educational background in psychology and professional school counseling truly speaks to her passion to understand students’ needs, in addition to being a reliable resource that promotes student success and academic success.
UNC Center of Excellence (CoE) Training Programs
UNC Center of Excellence Training Program. All master’s and doctoral students in the UNC Department of Maternal and Child Health are considered Center of Excellence (CoE) trainees as funding from this program supports a wide range of training activities and educational experiences. In addition, each year, six first-year students (typically four master’s students and two doctoral students) with U.S. focused research and practice interests in MCH are awarded tuition and stipend support through the Center of Excellence. Students receiving this support participate in 10 hours per week of activities working with faculty on research and practice projects to further enhance their MCH knowledge and skills. To be considered for funding, applicants must be admitted into the master’s or doctoral program and be a U.S. citizen or hold a permanent resident visa. A selection committee reviews all eligible applicants to determine which applicants will be offered funding, so there is no need for applicants to complete an additional application for this funding.
UNC Center of Excellence Maternal and Child Health Epidemiology Doctoral Training Program. The Maternal and Child Health Epidemiology Doctoral Training Program provides stipend support to two MCH doctoral students minoring in epidemiology and conducting dissertation research on a U.S.-focused MCH issue. The purpose of this program is to support the preparation of the future MCH epidemiologic workforce by promoting advancements in applied MCH research. The call for applications for this award is announced during the spring semester and the award is disbursed the following academic year.
UNC Center of Excellence Maternal and Child Health Postdoctoral Program. The Maternal and Child Health Postdoctoral Program provides 1-2 year postdoctoral positions to prepare doctoral graduates for academic positions within the field of MCH. The program focuses on enhancing postdoctoral scholars’ proficiency in MCH research, teaching, conceptual knowledge, communication, professionalism, and leadership, under the guidance of an MCH mentoring committee.
Personal Statements from our 2022-2023 UNC Center of Excellence Trainees
Lynn Balén, MPH student. I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2019 with a B.A. in in Health & Societies, concentration in Public Health, and minor in Gender, Sexuality, and Women Studies. During my undergraduate, I worked on research that explored how parents of gay, bi and queer sons engaged in the “sex talk”. This work along with my experiences learning and researching public health issues in a variety of global contexts including Vietnam, South Africa, Argentina, and Guatemala, laid the foundation for which my passion for public health built upon. Upon graduating, I served as a Peace Corps Community Health Specialist based in Cameroon, where I was able to continue supporting public health programming on a local level based in a global context. Most recently, I have worked as a Research Analyst with Child Trends where I have supported several adolescent-focused research projects, including an exploration of innovative practices to increase family planning service-delivery to adolescents in school-based health settings and an evaluation of a sex education app with a focus on creating inclusive, comprehensive sex education relevant to LGBTQ+ youth. With my academic background and professional experience, I have honed in on my specific field interests that lie at the intersection of maternal and child health, sexual and reproductive health, and LGBTQIA+ community health. At UNC, I am interested in researching the positionality of queer mothers and other queer parents in the innately heteronormative spaces of reproduction and parenthood.
Brandyn Brown-White, MPH student As a North Carolina native, I am so excited to be back home, continuing my education at Gillings. In the spring of 2022, I graduated from the University of Florida with my Bachelor of Science degree in Health Education. As a student, I had the opportunity to study STI patterns within the Gainesville community and evaluate sexual health-education programs across the state of Florida. During my undergraduate studies, I also served as an intern at an underserved maternity ward in Cape Town, South Africa. Here I participated in various realms of maternal and infant healthcare including screening new patients, providing pre-and post-natal education and counseling to new mothers, conducting HIV/AIDS testing and counseling, and serving as a birthing companion during labor and delivery. My experiences both domestically and internationally cemented my interest in public health, and specifically, maternal & child health. My specific research interests include maternal and infant health outcomes for women and infants who belong to historically underserved and marginalized groups, the lactation and breastfeeding experience for women and infants who belong to these groups, and perinatal mental health. This year I look forward to taking advantage of every opportunity offered within the department while networking with leaders in the concentration and increasing my knowledge base. I am most excited to gain more hands-on experience within the field, alongside a cohort of driven and passionate classmates!
Madeline Frank, MPH student. I grew up in Charlotte and am excited to be back in North Carolina! After graduating from Kenyon College in 2018, I began a Public Health AmeriCorps Program in Philadelphia, where I worked in a Community Health Center. Here, I discovered the intersection of social work and public health and my proclivity for working with children and families. After this, I worked through the Department of Human Services in Child Welfare and then taught English in Israel for a year. Each of these opportunities fortified my interest in supporting children and families and pursuing the dual MSW/MPH program. In my first year, I was fortunate to work with Dr. Anna Austin on a project examining the association of SNAP eligibility and enrollment policies with multiple forms of violence, which I will continue in the Fall. My research interests include the health effects of childhood trauma, integrating social workers into healthcare teams, and mitigating racial health disparities. At Gillings, I hope to understand how to critically analyze policies impacting maternal and child health and learn from my cohort and faculty.
Leigha Mills, MPH student. I am a native of Boston, MA and a 2020 graduate of Spelman College with a B.S. in Health Science. My interdisciplinary academic training ignited my interests in holistic health and prevention and intervention strategies. Upon graduation, I was selected as one of a cohort of 200 individuals to take part in the Public Health Associate Program (PHAP) with the Centers for Disease Control. The past two years I have served as a Public Health Advisor for adolescent/school-based sexually transmitted disease prevention at District of Columbia Department of Health. Specifically, my core responsibilities included qualitative and quantitative analysis, program planning and implementation, and community outreach and education. I could not be more excited to continue my academic training at UNC and explore my interests in black maternal health disparities. This year in my MPH program, I seek to demonstrate a comprehensive expertise in public health theory and practice, specifically, as it pertains to innovating changes for effective health systems related to maternal and child health.
Martina Spain, PhD student. Prior to joining the doctoral program at Gillings I gained a decade of experience in various aspects maternal and child health. Most recently, I worked at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston where I managed programs for adolescent parents including program design, implementation, and evaluation. While earning my Master of Public Health at Boston University’s School of Public Health (BUSPH), I was able to conduct research on global MCH systems, programmatic interventions, and social structures, and found that I was particularly drawn to qualitative research methods. Prior to earning my MPH I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala, where I worked on training of trainers at a rural health center and supported grassroots MCH education in partnership with the World Food Programme. I bring experience in communications from time working at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and in advocacy and development from my work with the United Nations Foundation’s Universal Access Project. Currently I serve as the Treasurer of the Board of Maya Midwifery International, an advisory and fundraising board that works in support of indigenous midwives in Guatemala. I hope to couple my experience in MCH with theory and research methods at Gillings, where my research will focus the impacts of women’s empowerment, family planning, and reproductive justice on the health and well-being of communities in low and middle-income countries. I look forward to learning more about theories and concepts behind health behavior that influence the success of programmatic efforts in global settings.
Lauren Spigel, PhD student. I began the PhD in Maternal and Child Health at UNC with over twelve years of research and evaluation experience across the reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health spectrum. My research interests are related to improving the quality, experience, and utilization of maternal healthcare services during the perinatal period through mixed methods and implementation science. I aim to use my research to generate a new paradigm, centering the birthing person in how we understand, measure, and judge quality of care. Prior to joining UNC, I was a Senior Research Specialist at Ariadne Labs, where I provided technical guidance on both qualitative and quantitative research methodologies for studies concerning maternal and child health globally and domestically. In my career I have also evaluated USAID programs, co-founded a digital health startup, and served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nicaragua. Most recently I have been getting a crash course in the complexities of the US maternal healthcare system as a first-time pregnant person and new mom. Studying maternal health while living it in my daily life has been a humbling experience, and I hope to bring these new insights into my research. I hold a Master in Public Health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a Bachelor of Science from the University of Maryland in College Park.
Personal Statements from our 2022-2023 Maternal and Child Health Epidemiology Doctoral Training Program Trainees
Isabel Morgan, PhD student. Prior to joining the doctoral program at UNC, I worked in the Division of Reproductive Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where I evaluated evidence for the U.S. Medical Eligibility Criteria for Contraceptive Use. Other aspects of my work included analyzing survey data on family planning providers’ attitudes and practices related to contraception and examining social determinants that impact postpartum care utilization. More recent work with the National Birth Equity Collaborative has led me to develop an interest in infertility and pregnancy loss, because there are many unanswered questions related to the etiology of infertility, miscarriage and stillbirth, and there are significant racial inequities in the populations most burdened by these experiences. My research focuses on inequities in Black women’s reproductive and maternal health outcomes and examining how structural racism impacts Black maternal health. In this upcoming academic year, I’m eager to explore decolonized and participatory research methodologies for the qualitative and quantitative aspects of my research.
Marissa Velarde, PhD student. I have over a decade of experience working in sexual health and advancing reproductive and gender justice. Prior to joining the doctoral program at UNC, I provided research support for a study on international feminist organizing for self-managed medication abortion with a focus on the work done in Latin America. I also served on the board of my local abortion fund, which involved serving the hotline. Both of these experiences have inspired my research interests in abortion access, particularly among Latinx domestically and in Latin America. As a doctoral student, I am developing a program of research that investigates how to make sexual and reproductive health equitable and accessible by minimizing the impact of social and economic inequalities. The long-term goal for my research is to ensure that everyone is able to access the vast spectrum of reproductive health services in order to advance reproductive justice. As such, I am committed to identifying and reducing the barriers people face and focusing my work on the inequities that persist among vulnerable and marginalized communities globally that impede optimal reproductive health. This academic year I intend to investigate the effects of Senate Bill 8 (SB 8) on abortion patients from Texas and explore differences that might exist between parents and non-parents and other sociodemographic characteristics.
UNC Center of Excellence Maternal and Child Health Postdoctoral Scholars
Rebekah Israel Cross, PhD. Dr. Cross is a fellow in the Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity in the departments of Health Behavior and Maternal and Child Health at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.
Her research uses quantitative and qualitative methods to explore how structural inequality impacts health. Her work involves conceptualizing and measuring racism, unpacking the relationships between racism, housing, and health, and highlighting how the field of public health perpetuates racism. She earned a PhD in Community Health Sciences from the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health with a minor in Urban Planning from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
Prior to UCLA, Dr. Cross worked at the Black AIDS Institute where she led the Training and Capacity Building Department. Her department trained Black public health workforce members on biomedical interventions to improve HIV continuum of care outcomes. Dr. Cross has a BA in Sociology and Political Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an MA in Sociology from American University.
Crystal Hayes, PhD, MSW. I am a doula and reproductive justice scholar interested in using anti-oppressive decolonial methodological frameworks and research paradigms to address perinatal health equity issues at the intersections of motherhood, mass incarceration, race, and public health. My broad intellectual and political social justice commitments and research interests run deep. Born and raised in New York City at the end of the civil rights movement, on the cusp of the Black Power Movement, raised by parents, and grandparents in the Black Panther Party, and coming of age during third-wave Feminism are all experiences and perspectives that have helped to shape and define the way that I approach my work as a Black feminist and anti-racist reproductive justice scholar. Living by the Audre Lorde quote “…silence will not protect you,” I strive to use my voice and work in service to others and to tell the truth about racialized sexism and other forms of oppression. My current research goal builds on my dissertation study and focuses on creating a comprehensive prison-based pregnancy, parenting, and postpartum support programs in partnership with local grassroots community groups led by People of Color to provide trained doulas, childbirth education and child development training, and chestfeeding supports to birthing people who are incarcerated. Broadly speaking, I am deeply committed to prison reform policies that address the disproportionate impact that mass incarceration has on Black women and girls, and gender nonbinary and trans people, and other communities of color.
Hannah Silverstein, PhD, MPH. Hannah has spent the entirety of her graduate education, for both her MPH and PhD, within UNC’s department of Maternal and Child Health. She is thrilled to be returning as a MCH CoE Postdoctoral Scholar. Hannah’s background is in international health and she has had lifelong experiences working with people with disabilities. As a quantitative researcher, she is interested in strategies assessing heterogeneous effects of programs, policies, and health service utilization. There are many research gaps that could better inform social policies and systems broadly aiming to interrupt intractable cycles of poverty and disability. Professionally, she is driven to meaningfully address these knowledge gaps at the intersection of social protection policy, disability, and child development. Her research combines her quantitative skillset with her personal interest in populations affected by disability, investigating how impacts of social protection programs, such as cash transfer programs, can differ across household disability and caregiver ability status. Her current research focuses on programs both here in the United States and in low- and middle-income countries.
Lindsey Yates, PhD, MPH. Dr. Lindsey Yates is a reproductive health services researcher focused on examining domestic racial differences in contraception services and birth outcomes. Her work uses both quantitative and qualitative methods to better understand the impact of racism as a root cause of disparities, with a specific interest in racial inequities experienced by Black women and birthing people living in North Carolina. Dr. Yates also helps communities implement MCH focused programs and policies. She works with teams to use tools that raise awareness about equity and center reproductive justice as the leading framework for delivering health-related services.
In addition to being a CoE postdoctoral trainee, Dr. Yates has also been recognized as an AcademyHealth Diversity Scholar and awarded funding through the Society of Family Planning Research Fund. Dr. Yates received her PhD from the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Where are they now?Here’s what our formerly supported CoE students are now up to.
Cameron Thomas, MPH (2022)
Presidential Management Fellow- Public Health Analyst
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
“I wouldn’t trade my experience as a CoE trainee for the world. Coming to UNC as out of state student, it eased my transition by providing me a built-in support network as I went through the MPH program. I’m so thankful for the connections I’ve made and the experiences I was exposed to as a product of my time within the CoE.”
Leah Daniel, 2nd Year MPH Student
“As a COE trainee, I had the privilege of working on two systematic reviews with Dr. Anna Austin. This summer, I am delighted to be working with the Maternal Health Learning and Innovation Center for my practicum. In the upcoming year, I will be continuing my work with MHLIC and hopefully continuing research activities around perinatal health.”
Caroline Hays, RN, 2nd year MPH student
“I greatly enjoyed my experience as a CoE trainee this year, which provided me with opportunities to work on a research team with UNC faculty members, network with other students and professionals who share my interest in perinatal health, and co-author journal articles with my wonderful faculty mentor. This year of training has greatly expanded my academic research skills and advanced my transition from clinical roles to public health research. I hope to continue to use the skills that I developed through this fellowship in my summer practicum and the second year of the MPH program, applying research skills to new projects and continuing to work with UNC research teams.”
Alex Coffey, current doctoral student
“This year I will begin working on my dissertation proposal and will complete my remaining coursework in the program. I hope to defend my proposal and begin conducting my dissertation research in the spring semester! Outside of school, I am excited to cook and bake new recipes with my husband, as well as spend quality time with our family and friends.”
Allie Atkeson, MPH (2020)
Policy Associate, Population and Public Health
National Academy for State Health Policy
Hannabeth Franchino-Olsen, PhD (2021)
Post-doctoral Research Fellow
University of Edinburgh
“The CoE gave me access to world-class faculty who helped me develop skills I can employ to improve the health of children and their families. I am now working on innovative primary data collection in South Africa, examining and interrupting the mechanisms that drive the transmission of intergenerational violence.”