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Shaniel Bowen Receives Ford Foundation Fellowship for Women’s Health Research

PITTSBURGH (April 24, 2020) … Despite the fact that women make up more than half of the U.S. population, women’s health continues to be an underserved area of research in science and medicine. Shaniel Bowen, a bioengineering graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, is doing her part to narrow that gap by studying the biomechanical roots of a common pelvic floor disorder, and she has received a Ford Foundation Fellowship to support these efforts.

Pelvic organ prolapse (POP) occurs when the muscles and tissues that support the pelvic organs weaken and allow the organs to push against the vagina. This common condition adversely affects women’s quality of life, including their body image, sexual function and personal relationships. Surgical repair for POP often fails within five years and requires reoperation, but the exact causes of this failure are unknown. The goal of Bowen’s research is to create a tool to better assess POP repairs.

“The standard tool used to evaluate POP repairs is limited to external vaginal examination,” explained Bowen. “As a result, it cannot detect the internal changes and interactions of pelvic structures involved in POP recurrence.”

This work is led by her advisor, Steven Abramowitch, associate professor of bioengineering in the Swanson School of Engineering, and Pamela Moalli, professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at Pitt and pelvic reconstructive surgeon at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital.

Abramowitch’s research uses experimental and computational methods to develop preventative treatment options for POP and more effective patient-specific treatments. He has a background in biomechanics, which he and the lab believes will play an important role in better understanding the causes of failed surgery.

“Nearly one-third of POP repairs fail due to abnormal mechanical behavior of the muscles, connective tissues, and nerves that help provide pelvic floor support following surgery,” said Bowen. “Failure of POP repair is fundamentally a biomechanical process; therefore, a biomechanical understanding of how and why repairs fail is needed to better treat POP and prevent its recurrence after surgery.”

Bowen’s goal is to create a novel assessment tool to evaluate and predict surgical outcomes of POP repairs based on patient anatomy. The project uses magnetic resonance images (MRIs) to get a better idea of the internal changes after POP surgery. She will apply statistical shape analysis and finite element modeling to the MRIs of 89 women with POP that underwent native tissue repair or mesh repair 30-42 months post-surgery. She will then use these data to identify anatomic descriptors and predictors of surgical outcomes and quantify the relationship between the mechanical demand required for POP repair to successfully correct prolapse.

“We need to address the gaps in scientific knowledge about women’s health,” said Bowen. “If this research is successful, it will advance our biomechanical knowledge of how and why failures occur after POP surgery. We hope that this tool will provide useful data to clinicians and help guide and optimize surgical decision-making to improve POP repair.”

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About the Ford Foundation Fellowship

Through its Fellowship Programs, the Ford Foundation seeks to increase the diversity of the nation’s college and university faculties by increasing their ethnic and racial diversity, maximize the educational benefits of diversity, and increase the number of professors who can and will use diversity as a resource for enriching the education of all students. Predoctoral, Dissertation, and Postdoctoral fellowships will be awarded in a national competition administered by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on behalf of the Ford Foundation.

Contact: Leah Russell