When Valerie J. Flaherman, M.D., M.P.H., first started conducting research after medical school, she worked with a mentor who needed help studying breastfeeding for a project. “I was like, sure, I’ll do breastfeeding,” she said. That research became her career, which also includes caring for babies and children.
Years later, Flaherman is now a co-investigator of a pregnancy study that is part of the NIH Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery (RECOVER) initiative. The research is designed to assess how people are affected by COVID-19 during and after pregnancy. This includes looking at long-term symptoms, or long COVID.
“The health of mothers and infants are intergenerationally intertwined,” she said. “The environmental and social factors that have an influence on the mom are also going to have an influence on their offspring.”
As a pediatrician and expert in preventive medicine, Flaherman is also a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, where she teaches courses in public health and pediatrics.
Since the pandemic started, Flaherman and other researchers have found that mothers can transmit immunity, such as from vaccines, both through the blood of the placenta and breastmilk from breastfeeding, which can help protect their infants.
“The family is often not considered a component of medical research, but I think breastfeeding highlights why it needs to be,” she said.
While research has always been Flaherman’s primary focus, her favorite part of working with families and young children is “seeing how simple interventions can have a positive impact.” Take a baby with a high fever, for example. “It could be something as simple as an ear infection,” she said. “We treat it and the fever goes away.”
Flaherman especially enjoys watching children she has worked with become teens and adults. “The goal of preventive health is to have the pediatric population grow up to be able to contribute fully to society in all its many facets.” It’s what drew her to pediatrics in the first place. “Young children,” she said, “have so much potential for the future.”
Additionally, her favorite part of teaching research to medical students and residents is seeing the future of medicine through their eyes.