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Lumen Scholar is all ears as she explores the impact of birth stories on first-time mothers

Michelle Reissig ’17 is among the recipients of the Lumen Prize, which provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship and celebrates their academic and creative accomplishments.

Michelle Reissig '17, right, with her Lumen Prize mentor Cindy Fair, professor of human service studies

Since last year, Michelle Reissig ’17 has been asking a lot of questions, and more importantly, doing a lot of listening. She’s been sitting down with African-American women during what can be a very special time in their lives — their first pregnancy — and seeking to learn how what they have heard from others about the giving birth is impacting how they experience welcoming their first child into the world.

Like other Lumen Scholars, Reissig wants to fill in a gap in current research by diving deeper into a topic that other scholars have not fully explored. She’s spent hours interviewing women both before and after giving birth, and then assessing their narratives to identify links between the birth stories of these women that might speak to larger trends. It’s a qualitative exploration of how birth stories can impact the experience for a minority group that has often been overlooked by researchers.

“I’m just humbled by the amount they share with me,” said Reissig, who is originally from the Seattle area. “They’re telling me things they are scared of, and sharing with me these deep emotional feelings they are having.”

Reissig is pursuing her research as a recipient of the Lumen Prize, which provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements. Lumen Scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects. Efforts include coursework, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad as well as during the regular academic year and summers, internships locally and abroad, program development and creative productions and performances. The name for the Lumen Prize comes from Elon’s historic motto, “Numen Lumen,” the Latin words for “spiritual light” and “intellectual light.”

It was the invitation to visit Elon for Fellows Weekend that convinced Reissig that the university was the place for her. The camaraderie and academic environment was a specific draw, with Reissig saying that she met Elon students and said to herself, “I want to be like them.”

An Honors Fellow, Reissig began at Elon with an eye on preparing for a career in health care. But after starting as a biology major, she realized that the social science side of health care was where she belonged. She developed a growing understanding of the vital role that public health plays globally, and wanted to play her own part. That public health interest helped her connect with Cindy Fair, professor of human service studies who heads the public health studies program.

The pair began brainstorming ideas for Reissig to pursue through her interest in being a Lumen Scholar, with Fair’s research focus on maternal health as the broad area of Reissig’s interest. “She really latched onto the issue of health inequalities that are experienced by African-American women, particularly related to maternal mortality and infant mortality,” Fair said. “She wanted to dig a little deeper and understand a little bit more about their experiences.”

While there has been research about how birth stories can influence how a women experiences pregnancy and child birth, African-American women were noticably absent from the surveys that have been done, Reissig said. "I was drawn to the concept of birth stories, and the way people talk about birth," she said. "That was something that was unfamiliar to me as a topic. I've been very interested in health disparities in earlier research, and wanted to see how these topics could be connected to each other."

Fair helped Reissig connect with Vicki Latham, a midwife at Central Carolina OB/GYN in Greensboro, who has proved vital in helping recruit women to participate in Reissig’s research. Reissig has interviewed close to two dozen women from a variety of backgrounds, with questions centering on the birth stories they have heard from other women and how that impacts how they themselves experience their first pregnancy and childbirth. “It’s really a diverse group, in terms of providers, in terms of people in the waiting room, and insurance status,” Fair said. “I felt like that was a good place for Michelle to be.”

As a mentor, Fair has helped Reissig understand how to go about conducting qualitative examination of the information being gathered. Reissig has been talking to the women who are participating about how these stories impact their childbirth self-efficacy — how effective they feel they are at navigating the childbirth experience — as well as how the stories impact the overall experience of giving birth. “As an expert in the methodology I’m using, she’s been a great resource,” Reissig said. “She really frames herself to me as a sounding board and a resource.”

A back-and-forth discussion of what Reissig is discovering is a critical component to identifying potential findings from the information she is gathering, Fair said. “With qualitative research, the analysis part is a process,” she said. “We talk about trends that we’re seeing, but how we make sense of those trends requires a discourse between two people.

Reissig said being a Lumen Scholar has provided the opportunity to fully commit to a deep, insightful research project, as well as to hone her skills and intuitions as a researcher and scholar. She’s been active in identifying conferences that will allow her to present her research, with the funding provided by the Lumen Prize opening up a broader range of possibilities and “empowering me to go all in on this project,” she said. Looking beyond commencement in May, Reissig plans to pursue a master’s of public health program with a concentration on maternal and child health.

“She’s an unbelievably bright young woman with intellectual curiosity and an excitement about the work that we’re doing,” Fair said of Reissig. “The Lumen Prize is an absolute gamechanger for students, and I’ve seen it open doors that would have been fully closed without it.”

Owen Covington,
2/21/2017 11:15 AM