Changing the future of women’s health

Donna Santillan is looking to discover why conditions such as premature births, preeclampsia, and gestational diabetes occur in some women and not others.

Editor’s note: September is Women in Medicine Month. This is the third in a series of articles showcasing how women in UI Health Care are changing medicine, changing lives.  

In a lab on the fourth floor of the University of Iowa Medical Research Facility, amidst a maze of offices and other rooms, Donna Santillan, PhD, is hard at work, making strides in research that are changing what we know about women’s health.

“I’ve found that women’s health is a really open field for research,” says Santillan. “It’s amazing that women have been giving birth for all of human history, yet there is still so much we don’t know about pregnancy and labor. How is that possible? We need to understand these things.”

Santillan, along with a team of researchers, is working to do just that. She is the director of the Women’s Health Tissue Repository, used by researchers to study a variety of issues affecting women’s health, including preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and premature births. The repository—made up of five biobanks (Maternal Fetal Tissue Bank; Paternal Contributions to Children’s Health Bank; Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility Tissue Bank; Gynecologic Oncology Tissue Bank; and the Well Women Bank)—is the only biobank of its kind in the country. Its data and biological specimens, used by researchers at the university and with collaborators around the globe, are expanding what we know about women’s health.

Research about the long-term effects of pregnancy on the health of the mom and child is understudied and desperately needed. For example, women who had preeclampsia during pregnancy have a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease later in life. Children born from these pregnancies also have higher rates of hypertension as adults.

“I’m so proud to be part of the team that has assembled this collection,” says Santillan. “From the providers and nurses collecting samples, to the phlebotomy lab, to the couriers that deliver the samples, to all of the researchers, everyone has played a part in the important work that we do.”

A move to Iowa City

While her research today is future focused, a quick journey into her own past finds a passion for history.

As an undergraduate at Loyola University in Chicago, Santillan majored in chemistry and history. A seemingly opposite combination, Santillan explains that she merged her two passions.

“I had taken many college level courses in high school, and I had time in my college schedule to pursue a history degree, a subject I am also passionate about,” she says. “In my Women in Science Encouraging Research (WISER) fellowship, I researched the influence of the use of elemental lead on society throughout history, combining my two interests.”

Through both domains, Santillan discovered a love of learning, research, and education. After taking a gap year to teach high school science, Santillan found herself back in school to pursue her PhD in molecular biology.

In 2006, Santillan and her husband, Mark, made their way to Iowa City. While her husband completed a Maternal Fetal Medicine fellowship in Obstetrics and Gynecology, she began a post-doctoral fellowship in the department as well.

“My graduate work involved research on leukemia, and I was looking for something very different when I began my post-doctoral fellowship,” explains Santillan. “I happened to pick up one of my husband’s textbooks one night, and I was amazed about the research possibilities in the field of obstetrics.”

And it wasn’t long before Santillan knew she had made the right decision.

“The work that we do here is such a team effort,” says Santillan. “What I have found unique about the University of Iowa is that there is a great deal of opportunities and many individuals who will invest in helping others to be successful.”

The UI difference

It’s that teamwork and collaboration that Santillan says makes all of the difference.

Santillan hopes that she can engage and help others expand their research, focusing on the inclusion of women as both subjects and participants of clinical research.

“It’s important to be able to study issues that impact women, which requires women as subjects in research, but also encouraging women to choose careers in research,” says Santillan. “There’s a world of opportunity here.”

One of her favorite parts about her job is sharing with others the work taking place within the walls of UI Health Care.

“I think there can be a lot of mystery surrounding research,” says Santillan. “When I have the opportunity to go out into the community and explain my work and how it directly impacts the individuals in the crowd, I’m really able to put a face to what I do.”


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