A Professor's Mission to Improve Maternal Mental Health

April 17, 2023

By Abe Loomis

Family history and personal tragedy fuel Professor Yoko Nomura’s research on maternal stress.

Yoko Nomura Headshot (Photo credit: Alex Irklievski)
Professor Yoko Nomura is known for her groundbreaking research on maternal stress and infant development. (Photo credit: Alex Irklievski)

When Professor Yoko Nomura (GC/Queens College, Psychology, Cognitive Neuroscience) left Japan more than three decades ago to get a Ph.D. in sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, she had a specific goal.

“I wanted to be a voice for women,” she says.

Since then, her research on maternal stress and infant development has broken new ground. Her longitudinal study of the effects of Hurricane Sandy, which found substantial increases in depression, anxiety disorders, and attention deficit disorders in children who were in gestation during the disaster, continues to generate newsworthy findings. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR have covered the study.

Nomura’s interest in improving women’s well-being began in childhood. She was inspired by her grandmother, one of the first women in her prefecture to attend college at a time when educational opportunities for women in Japan were extremely limited.

“She thought women could be stronger,” Nomura says, “and shouldn’t just be a decoration [like] wallpaper or a flower.”

Later, disturbed by the glaring gender disparities she observed at a high school in Japan where she taught early in her career, Nomura decided that deepening her education was the best way to gain the tools of advocacy. The death of Nomura’s son on his second day of life in 1992, caused by an undetected abnormality in utero, confirmed her life’s mission as an advocate for women’s health and focused her interest on studying the effects of maternal stress on fetal health.

“I wanted to bring to people’s attention that pregnancy is not that easy,” Nomura says, “and we shouldn’t put all the burden on women. Everything a mother eats, she thinks, she feels, is passed on to the fetus through the placenta. The placenta gives them nutrients, water, oxygen, everything. But the placenta also gives the baby stress hormones. When you are dealing with the burden of creating a new creature deep within yourself, that is really — biologically and physiologically speaking — stressful. And we often forget about it.”

Nomura joined the faculty at Queens College and the Graduate Center in 2009. In 2012, soon after she had recruited a group of women for a National Institutes of Health–funded study of maternal stress on infant development, Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast. Seizing the opportunity, Nomura adjusted the focus of the study to examine the effects of exposure to the natural disaster on pregnant mothers and the children they gave birth to after the storm.

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As the children featured in that study age, Nomura’s team continues to collect data.

“The children exposed in utero to Superstorm Sandy are reaching pre-puberty,” Nomura says. “Pre-puberty is a time, epigenetically speaking, where the wrong thing could happen. You can imagine, if you’re driving in a straight line and you fall asleep, that may be a danger, but you are less likely to have an accident than when you are turning or making a move. The same thing is true in biology. So, when the body is changing in utero when cells are multiplying dramatically, during early childhood when children are growing, in puberty, and also later in life when cognitive decline is happening, those are the times epigenetically … to study what might happen.”

An uplifting aspect of the study, Nomura says, has been watching her students connect with their subjects in the early stages of research.

“All of us had a ball,” she says. “It was really, really exciting for students to be exposed to that kind of cutting-edge research and the anticipation of people getting born and witnessing the birth, because we have to be there to receive the placenta in a cold bag. I cannot really describe how rewarding, how inspiring it is. We become very close to our participants because we keep on saying, ‘Are you there yet? Are you there yet?’”

For Nomura, few things are as satisfying as teaching and mentoring the next generation of scientists.

“CUNY students trigger my internal activist blood,” she says. “They are really humble, and they want to climb the ladder. Often, they are the first generation of college goers within their family. Most of them are very driven. They want to do a good job. They want to change their lives.”

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