Released on February 17, 2022

Suzanne Hyer ’19PhD received funding from the National Institutes of Health to study the role of social determinants of health on pregnancy weight gain and infant birth weight among Black women.

Suzanne Hyer '19PhD, Jonas Scholar, UCF College of Nursing PhD alumna, Postdoctoral Fellow
Suzanne Hyer, PhD, RN, is the first postdoctoral fellow at the University of Central Florida College of Nursing

Nursing PhD alumna Suzanne Hyer is passionate about health promotion – to positively influence people’s health knowledge and behavior. Now as the UCF College of Nursing’s first postdoctoral fellow, Hyer is able to extend her passion and make a greater impact by advancing her research.

Hyer recently received the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Individual Postdoctoral Fellowship from the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Nursing Research. Her funded study is examining the association of neighborhood- and individual-level factors with gestational, or pregnancy, weight gain and infant birth weight among Black women.

“There can be a crossroads where an individual or community’s ability to improve their health is met with the conditions of their environment,” says Hyer. These are called social determinants of health, which are conditions that affect a person’s health, functioning and quality-of-life outcomes and risk. Social determinants of health include economics, neighborhood disorder and crime, discrimination, social support, as well as access to and quality of education, healthcare, and healthy food.

“Her study will fill a gap in knowledge related to the role of social determinants of health on weight gain during pregnancy among Black women.”

Carmen Giurgescu,
Associate Dean of Research

Hyer’s interest in health promotion was sparked in graduate school. After working in various roles in healthcare, from a nurse at the bedside to government regulation and higher education, she completed a residency program in Central America where she helped develop a community wellness program and saw first-hand how social determinants of health were influencing the group’s health.

“That experience led me to my doctoral research on obesity and weight management.”

As a doctoral student at UCF, the national Jonas Scholar examined obesity and weight management practices among primary care nurse practitioners, and found evidence of overweight bias in women’s healthcare that negatively impacted health outcomes.

“My work revealed barriers to care and highlighted facilitators that can engage nurse practitioners in obesity and weight management,” she says. “This is an important first step to increasing provider commitment to care.”

After graduating from the online Nursing PhD program, Hyer began working at the college as an adjunct faculty member and met her postdoctoral mentor Associate Dean of Research Carmen Giurgescu. Giurgescu, a respected women’s health expert, is currently principal investigator on a $3.8 million NIH-funded study examining how social stressors alter inflammation during pregnancy and lead to preterm birth in Black women. Black women are 1.5 times more likely to have preterm birth compared to non-Hispanic white women.

Pregnant belly of Black woman

That’s not the only staggering statistic. Black women are more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white women, and approximately 4 out of 5 Black women are overweight or obese. Black women are also at-risk for not gaining optimal weight during pregnancy, and delivering an infant of lower birth weight compared with non-Hispanic white and Hispanic women. Furthermore, Black women are more likely to reside in neighborhoods with higher levels of socioeconomic disadvantage, disorder and crime, and with limited access to healthy food options compared to white women.

“Studies to-date have focused weight management strategies on individual lifestyle behaviors,” says Hyer. Her study is the first-of-its-kind to simultaneously examine the relationship of perceived and objective measures, such as census data, of neighborhood environmental stressors with gestational weight gain in a large cohort of pregnant Black women – working with data from Giurgescu’s study.

“Dr. Hyer has expertise weight management, which was a good fit with our study,” says Giurgescu. “Her study will fill a gap in knowledge related to the role of social determinants of health on weight gain during pregnancy among Black women.”

The knowledge gained from the study will inform future interventions with advanced practice nurses to reduce health disparities in gestational weight gain and infant birth weight to ultimately improve maternal and infant health in Black families.

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