A Motherly Instinct

Dr. Jimi Francis Shares Passion to Help Mothers Through Her Research

Publication Date: 01/17/2020

Dr. Jimi Francis is promoting a healthier East Texas through her research. An assistant professor in UT Tyler’s health and kinesiology department, Francis focuses on maternal and infant health, which encompasses three main areas: health during pregnancy; lactation; and human milk composition.

Specifically, she studies the causes of gestational hypertension in mothers.

“I have discovered that this region of Texas has a high rate of hypertension diagnosed during pregnancy, a high preterm birth rate, high infant mortality and morbidity; and high maternal mortality and morbidity,” Francis said. “My most recent study indicates there is a nutrition component to gestational hypertension that we may be able to change and prevent some cases, thereby reducing maternal and infant mortality and morbidity.”

She has dedicated her life to help first-time mothers and their babies in the hopes of becoming a valuable resource to them.

“I was a teen mother and experienced my first child’s life with no resources or help,” said Francis. “I want to give back to all the moms and babies who don’t have the resources they need to be healthy and have a quality life.”

In her recently published study on 2,763 mother/infant pairs born locally, 530 mothers were diagnosed with hypertension during their pregnancy. One third of the infants born to the women with hypertension were preterm deliveries. Additionally, 148 of the babies with hypertensive mothers were admitted to neonatal intensive care.

“The results of this study strongly demonstrate that the local rate of gestational hypertension is higher than the rate reported in the medical literature,” Francis said.

Francis said many women also begin breastfeeding but are not meeting their breastfeeding goals. She is currently developing equipment to provide objective assessment when milk transfer does not go well. The University has approved moving forward with a patent application for the device. Francis is working with a team of engineers from the UT Tyler College of Engineering as well as colleagues from the University of Connecticut.

In addition, her team of UT Tyler student researchers also are processing about 1,000 samples of human milk to determine why infants sometimes refuse their mother’s milk when it has been expressed and stored. The purpose of this study is to develop new recommendations for storage and handling, Francis said.

A self-proclaimed lifelong learner, Francis has developed novel lab techniques and serves as a reviewer for peer-review journals evaluating the publication worthiness of research studies. She said she has a great enthusiasm for accumulating knowledge, but knowledge is only of value if it is shared with others.

“I am a facilitator for learning,” she said. “I enjoy sharing with my students too, and I am grateful for being able to learn from my students every day. I believe that research is most valuable when it translates from the ‘bench’ to the ‘clinic’ to life practices.”

Her future in research endeavors looks bright. A grant is being reviewed by an industry partner in relation to the pending patent. Francis also is preparing National Institute of Health and National Science Foundation grant proposals this spring.

Serving UT Tyler since 2014, Francis is a certified dietician and holds a master of science and Ph.D. in nutrition. She was instrumental in designing and implementing new UT Tyler nutrition classes, and she has submitted programs of study for the bachelor of science and master of science in nutrition at the University, both of which are currently under review.

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