Villanova University President's Report
Focus on Helping Families Thrive

Promoting the welfare and addressing the special health needs of vulnerable populations require multidisciplinary perspectives. Faculty from across Villanova’s colleges research health disorders, psychological behaviors and public policies, leading to improved diagnoses and informed choices.

C. “Nat” Nataraj, PhD, (pictured, left, with two Villanova students)
C. “Nat” Nataraj, PhD, professor of Mechanical Engineering, works with Children's Hospital of Philadelphia to apply data analysis to improve the diagnosis to improve the diagnosis of a potentially deadly brain injury infants.

Engineers Improve Diagnosis of Life-Threatening Disorder in Infants

The health of infants can be fragile. That of premature infants, even more so. Periventricular leukomalacia is a potentially deadly brain injury that can cause serious speech, cognition and motor skills problems, as well as cerebral palsy or epilepsy later in life. Premature infants, especially those who undergo heart surgery, are at greatest risk of the disorder.

Researchers from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia tapped C. “Nat” Nataraj, PhD, professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Villanova Center for Analytics of Dynamic Systems, to help physicians examine biometrics to better diagnose PVL. The study is funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Nataraj has been a leader in studying how to predict failure of complex dynamic systems, including unmanned robots, and his advancements in diagnostics have allowed him to create technology to help robots repair and maintain their own systems. It is both unexpected and apt that he is applying those same cutting-edge concepts to push medical care forward.

“Medical diagnostics is all about interpreting data to reach conclusions. Engineers know how to apply science, and they can apply the same science to human beings,” Dr. Nataraj says.

Dr. Nataraj has worked with the CHOP team to track data from blood pressure, heart rate and gas concentration readings, as well as MRI images, to develop algorithms to predict not only when PVL may occur, but also the severity.

For the first time, the team has recorded a 90 percent accuracy rate for predicting PVL. This will help medical staff determine when to take preventive measures or apply treatments. Dr. Nataraj’s contributions to medical diagnostics were featured in November 2016 by U.S. News & World Report in a look at the health care of tomorrow.

Dr. Nataraj, who is also the Mr. and Mrs. Robert F. Moritz, Sr. Endowed Chair in Engineered Systems, is continuing to partner with CHOP on two additional studies: one on using data analysis to improve the success rate of CPR in hospitals and another to improve treatment of children in the intensive care unit.


Support for Moms to Have Healthy Babies

 A photo of Sunny G. Hallowell, PhD, PPCNP-BC, IBCLC, assistant professor, with students.
Sunny G. Hallowell, PhD, PPCNP-BC, IBCLC, assistant professor

Motherhood is a time for celebration—a welcoming of new life into the world. But it can also be a vulnerable time for mothers and children. Faculty members in the M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing have dedicated themselves to expanding understanding of prenatal, maternal and child health factors, helping caregivers everywhere offer better treatment and support.

Assistant Professor Amy McKeever, RN, CRNP, WHNP-BC, ’08 PhD and Clinical Instructor SueEllen Alderman, MSN, RN, PMHCNS, have drawn on their extensive clinical experience to give other nurses insight into childbearing women with mental illness, which affects up to 20 percent of pregnant women. Their study, published in the journal Nursing for Women’s Health, has the goal of helping clinicians work with interdisciplinary teams to identify women with mental illness and help them manage it during pregnancy.

Stress can cause expectant mothers to miss prenatal care and experience poor maternal and fetal outcomes. Linda Maldonado, PhD, RN, assistant professor, researches how stress affects pregnant Puerto Rican women, who have the poorest maternal outcomes of all Latina subgroups. Many Puerto Rican women simultaneously care for older members of their extended families and for their immediate families, and a large percentage live in neighborhoods with high rates of drug-related violence and homicides. “The research study will ultimately lead to a proposed intervention that the women themselves will help to create and enact,” says Dr. Maldonado, a 2016 scholar with the Health Disparities Research Institute, a program hosted by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

Alleviating stress in nursing mothers is also vital for the healthy development of children. Sunny G. Hallowell, PhD, PPCNP-BC, IBCLC, assistant professor, is leading research to examine how breastfeeding may help mitigate the effect of toxic stressors in infancy and early childhood, potentially reducing the development of diseases, including hypertension, diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease, in adulthood. Her article, published in Nursing Outlook, also reaffirms that choosing to breastfeed instead of purchasing formula may offer long-term nutritional benefits for babies and economic benefits for mothers.

The research conducted by Dr. Hallowell and her colleagues is providing further evidence of the intrinsic link between mother and child—and how integral a woman’s mental and physical health are to the well-being of her children.


A photo of Janette Herbers, PhD.
Janette Herbers, PhD

IMPACT OF HOMELESSNESS ON CHILD DEVELOPMENT

Half of all children who experience homelessness are under the age of 6, but little is known about the impacts of homelessness on early child development. Janette Herbers, PhD, assistant professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, received a five-year National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program award to study infants experiencing homelessness and extreme poverty. She will compare the risk, protection and adaptation of Philadelphia families who live in homeless shelters with that of families who are poor but have housing.


THE HIGH EDUCATIONAL TOLL OF PRETERM BIRTH

Children who are born prematurely are at risk of many health issues, and developmental and educational problems can continue for years, according to Michelle Kelly, CRNP, ’94, ’12 PhD, assistant professor of Nursing. As they grow up, preterm babies are more susceptible to attention deficit disorder, learning disorders, asthma, speech impairments and other chronic conditions, Dr. Kelly’s study found. Her findings, published in the Journal of Pediatric Health Care, pinpoint the educational and psychosocial challenges of children born prematurely and provide a strong justification for early intervention, therapies and education programs.


REDUCING WASTE IN THE GLOBAL FOOD SUPPLY

One-third of food around the world goes unconsumed, and finding solutions is critical to expanding the reach of the global food supply to feed more people. For Beth Vallen, PhD, associate professor of Marketing, understanding how and why food is wasted by consumers is the key. In a paper that was published in the American Marketing Association’s Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, Dr. Vallen and her co-authors define the factors that lead to waste, from the presentation of produce in supermarkets to the decision by consumers to dispose of “ugly” but still edible food. The study has implications for both households and public institutions seeking to better manage food supplies and reduce waste.