Last month, Julienne Rutherford, PhD, joined the University of Arizona College of Nursing as the John and Nell Mitchell Endowed Chair for Pediatric Nursing. In her new position, Dr. Rutherford will act as a national leader in discovering and disseminating new knowledge in pediatric nursing. She will also build and lead interdisciplinary research teams that will have an impact on the complex care of vulnerable infants, children, adolescents, and pregnant people of all ages.
“I’m so deeply gratified, honored and humbled,” Dr. Rutherford says of being named the John and Nell Mitchell Endowed Chair for Pediatric Nursing. “This is an incredible next step for me and I’m so excited to be taking it with the University of Arizona. The generous endowment from the Mitchell family will allow me to do the research I’ve been dreaming of and even things I haven’t dreamed of yet.”
“I focus on pregnancy, on reproduction, and on the placenta in particular, as an environment that’s connected to the past and the future in terms of health," ~ Julienne Rutherford, PhD, John and Nell Mitchell Endowed Chair for Pediatric Nursing
Dr. Rutherford comes to the UArizona from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she was Associate Professor and Associate Department Head of Human Development Nursing Science in the College of Nursing. She has been a Robert Wood Johnson Future of Nursing mentor and has received numerous awards including: the UIC Researcher of the Year Rising Star in Clinical Sciences, American Society of Primatologists Legacy Award, National Academy of Science Kavli Foundation Fellow, the American College of Nurse Midwives Excellence in Teaching Award, an NIH Loan Repayment Program Award, and the Teaching Recognition Program Award and Award in Teaching Excellence both from UIC.
Dr. Rutherford is a biological anthropologist whose work integrates evolutionary theory with biomedical science. For 20 years, she has sustained a program of research exploring the intrauterine environment as a biosocial determinant of health. “I pull from several threads of biological anthropology and health sciences,” she explains, noting that her work centers on the dynamic intrauterine environment of the fetus and how lived experience of the mother across her own life course and even prior generations shapes that environment. “That drives not only pregnancy outcomes and fetal outcomes but really health across the life course for individuals,” she says. “I focus on pregnancy, on reproduction, and on the placenta in particular, as an environment that’s connected to the past and the future in terms of health.”
Dr. Rutherford’s current research focus is her “Womb to Womb” model of reproductive health and pregnancy outcomes in the marmoset monkey. Using data provided by the NIH-funded Southwest National Primate Research Center in San Antonio, Texas, Dr. Rutherford examines how different intrauterine conditions shape birth outcomes, growth and development, and even ultimately pregnancy outcomes of future generations. “We’ve shown in the marmoset that it is not a mother’s age or weight at the time of the pregnancy – the things we focus heavily on in human clinical contexts – that have the strongest impact on her pregnancy, but things that happened during her development, things she didn’t have any control over,” Dr. Rutherford said, explaining that the marmoset’s variable litter size provides the opportunity to study several factors. “If a marmoset female is born as a triplet or on the smaller end of birth weight, she is more likely to have worse pregnancy outcomes when she grows up. This gives us a lot to think about in the way we tend to blame mothers for their pregnancy outcomes, not taking into account their entire lived experience, in ways that contribute to disparities and injustices in maternal and infant mortality.”
As part of UArizona Nursing’s new Nurse-Midwifery program, Dr. Rutherford will be a passionate and knowledgeable player. She hopes to help students contextualize pregnancy as a process beyond anatomy and physiology and show how the world around us can shape those experiences negatively through stress and discrimination, but also positively through social, systemic, and structural kinds of support. In addition to teaching the anatomy and physiology of pregnancy and birth to midwifery students for the past decade, she has direct experience with midwifery from giving birth to her daughter – an experience she calls life-changing. “I was already studying the biological process of pregnancy, but experiencing it in a midwifery model, being cared for as a whole person, was really incredible,” she says.
As the John and Nell Mitchell Endowed Chair, Dr. Rutherford will continue her research on the intrauterine environment, which focuses on more than the early postnatal life to include infancy, childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. “I’ll be developing my own program of research, as well as supporting other faculty and PhD students to develop synergies of work that encompass a life course approach to health in thinking about pediatric research, and ultimately pediatric care,” she says. For example, one area of research she is excited to explore more deeply at UArizona is the underlying biological mechanisms of postpartum hemorrhage. “Excessive bleeding at birth is one of the leading causes of maternal mortality globally,” Dr. Rutherford notes. “There are many kinds of hemorrhages and likely many pathways, but we really know very little about how the risk develops early in pregnancy. I am so excited about the intersections between basic science and clinical care that I and other faculty in the College of Nursing have in this area and can’t wait to start collaborating!”
She was drawn to UArizona Nursing for numerous reasons, including its focus on collaboration and innovation, but also its commitment to engage in honest conversations around equity, diversity, and inclusion. “And, I would add, justice,” she says, pointing out that academia broadly, and nursing in particular, tend to be very white fields. “We don’t match the communities that we’re serving through our scholarship and through our clinical practice. Coming from one of the most diverse universities in the country, these are really important issues to me, so that’s hugely meaningful to see them being so openly engaged with in the UArizona College of Nursing.”