Pilsner, Sibeko, and Vandenberg among those named Family Research Scholars

February 27, 2015

UMass Amherst's Center for Research on Families (CRF) recently named SPHHS faculty members Richard Pilsner, Lindiwe Sibeko, and Laura Vandenberg as 2015-2016 Family Research Scholars. The CRF will provide the selected faculty with the time, technical expertise, interdisciplinary peer mentorship, and national expert consultation to prepare a large grant proposal for their research support. The program's goal is to bring together a diverse, multi-disciplinary group of faculty to foster innovation and collaboration across research areas related to the family. Read more here.

Richard Pilsner (Assistant Professor of Environmental Health Sciences) will be examining the contributions of paternal environmental health to reproductive health and embryo development. Endocrine disrupting compounds (EDC), such as certain compounds found in plastics, can affect reproductive health and sperm quality. Compelling new data in animal models indicate that paternal environmental exposures or nutritional manipulations alter the sperm epigenome and subsequent phenotype of offspring; however, limited data of this relationship in humans exist.  Dr. Pilsner has established the population-based study, Sperm Environmental Epigenetics and Development Study (SEEDS), of 250 couples in collaboration with Baystate Medical Center to examine the relationship between paternal EDC exposure, sperm epigenetics, and embryo development.


Lindiwe Sibeko (Extension Assistant Professor of Nutrition) is planning on developing and implementing a community-based participatory research intervention aimed at increasing breastfeeding initiation and duration rates among African American women. Infant mortality rates of black infants are consistently double the rates of white infants across the country, and in Massachusetts.  Research suggests that the infant mortality gap in the black population can be significantly narrowed through increased breastfeeding. However, current estimates indicate only 45% of African American women report initiating breastfeeding, compared to 68% in the white population.  Local initiatives to increase breastfeeding rates among African American women have been largely unsuccessful. Sibeko seeks to understand the contextual factors contributing to breastfeeding disparities and in partnership with participants, develop a community-based, culturally relevant intervention to increase breastfeeding rates.

Laura Vandenberg (Assistant Professor of Environmental Health Sciences) will be analyzing the effects of hormones on maternal behaviors that are displayed soon after birth. Interactions between mothers and their infants have significant impacts on the emotional, mental, and physical health of offspring. Research has revealed that the female hormone estrogen is required for maternal behavior, but studies examining whether supplemental estrogens disrupt these behaviors have generated conflicting results. Vandenberg plans on administering estrogen and other environmental chemicals that mimic estrogen to pregnant and recently pregnant rodents to shed additional light on the effects of these chemicals on maternal behavior and other aspects of maternal health.