Jennifer Vanderlaan, assistant professor at the UNLV School of Nursing, is a trained midwife, family nurse practitioner, and a Rebel who’s making it happen. Determined to reduce maternal morbidity and mortality rates in Nevada and beyond, she has been recognized as an Emerging Leader by the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses and serves as chair of the Lamaze International Research Workgroup. Her most recent accomplishment, being appointed to the Nevada Maternal Mortality Review Committee will allow her to contribute to an issue she’s passionate about.
What drew you to UNLV?
My degree in global health is really about understanding how you get needed health resources to diverse populations geographically. When you think of Nevada, it’s not just urban/rural with cities dotted everywhere. It’s basically two urban centers with a mix of rural and frontier — it is global health. I get to use all of my skills, all of my training, all of my ways of thinking about the world here.
Tell us about your career expertise/background prior to coming to UNLV.
I was trained as a nurse-midwife, a family nurse practitioner, and in global public health. There isn’t a master specialty for maternal child health, so that’s the route I took to get into the field. I went on to focus on maternal morbidity and mortality and imagined myself working at the World Health Organization, but when I graduated I was living in the only country with a rising maternal mortality rate. When I returned to school to work on my PhD, I worked with a colleague from the Centers for Disease Control for my dissertation project (reproductive health). I’m now looking at regionalization, which is a public health response to maternal morbidity and mortally instead of looking at what we are doing in the hospital setting. I look at how we are organizing our health systems. Is there a way we can change our health system so we can identify earlier who needs help and get them higher-level care?
What does your research focus on?
My research focuses on maternal health from a health systems perspective, integrating clinical outcomes, health economics, and health policy to identify ways to improve access to quality maternal care. My recent projects explore regionalization of maternal care, the effects of childbirth education, and the use of hydrotherapy for pain management during labor and delivery.
What inspired you to get into your field and what is the biggest misconception about your field?
I think the biggest misconception is the idea that this is the United States and people assume we have the best health care system and we really don’t. We are behind the rest of the world in maternal and perinatal outcomes. We have higher rates of prematurity than other countries; we have higher neonatal and maternal morbidity and mortality than other countries; and we spend so much more than those countries.
Outside of your research, what are you passionate about?
Just about everything I am passionate about goes into my research. I came into the field focused on childbirth education and doing doula work and I’m now the chair of the Lamaze International Research Workgroup. Outside of research and work, I really love video games.
Tell me about video games. How did you get involved?
I grew up playing video games. I remember in elementary school, we had the Atari 2600 and back then it was a family thing. You could play Monopoly or you could bowl on the Atari, so for me video gaming had always been a family activity. As a family, we love board games, card games, and video games, so gaming has always been part of who I am. If I’m playing alone, I love the game Fall Out. I also enjoy playing Skyrim. I’m currently the family champion of Mario Cart.
Tell me about beer and winemaking. When did you get into it?
I started making wine about 10 years ago. My grandfather used to make wine back when I was a kid, so it has always been the norm for me. I love the microbiology of it. I love that you can take two bottles of the same grape juice, put yeast in one and a different yeast in the other and they will taste distinctively different. That is mind-blowing to me — that the yeast, this little living thing, can change something so drastically.
What kind of wine or beer do you make?
My husband and I don’t do a lot of beer, we’re still learning it. The process between beer and wine is very different. With beer you make a tea and then ferment it. With wine you start with a juice and go from there. I enjoy making wine out of other fruits; grapes are where wines began and that’s because the grape itself is the perfect acidity and sugar level for the yeast to ferment quickly. When you work with other fruits, you have to add acids, add sugars so the yeast can do its job. It’s like a small science experiment!
What’s the most Vegas thing you’ve done since you got here?
I like to run on the Strip on Sunday mornings before the tourists wake up. I live close to campus so I can get to the Strip easily and also have a short commute to work!
What advice would you give your younger self?
Think about your education early on. Nursing was my second degree. I went back to school to be a nurse and I spent a lot of time thinking about it and thought it was too late, but it wasn’t. So I would tell my younger self, “Stop telling yourself it’s too late.”
Tell us about an object in your office.
This is a pinard horn (a type of stethoscope for listening to a fetus during pregnancy). A friend who is a woodworker made it for me before I went to the Congo to train women from a group of churches in Rwanda, Burundi, and Congo. Some of these women walked for over a week before they could get to a place where they could take a van to where we were training. The whole purpose of the training was to show them how they could tell who needed help with very few resources. We taught them how to use a blood pressure cuff, how to look for anemia, and how to use a pinard horn. We ended up leaving some with the women to use.
Best tip for someone new to UNLV.
If you enjoy hiking, do the local hikes. There are so many options that are so close. Being a person who came from the East, who’s never lived in the West, it is so different from what I’m used to hiking in the East.
Hiking in the desert is harder. You have mountains and slant/slab canyons, but the biggest difference between the West and the East is you would never walk where there isn’t a trail marker in the East. Here you can explore. It’s a completely different skill.
Name a person or group of people on campus you’d like to thank.
The Faculty Development Center is a great resource and offers a lot of great programs, so I would like to thank them! I recently participated in a book club that they sponsored, which was a great way to meet other faculty on campus. I would encourage everyone to pick one group or committee to get involved in on campus so you can meet other faculty outside of your department. In academic careers, people move a lot, so it’s nice to meet new people.
What problem in the world would you most like to fix?
Maternal morbidity and mortality. There’s no reason for the disparities, inequities and there’s definitely no reason for the deaths.