A Faculty of Our Own: Julia Seng


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color photograph of Julia Seng
color photograph of Julia Seng

This article was originally featured in the Fall 2015 issue of Genderscapes, IRWG's annual newsletter.

Julia Seng took a rather indirect route to becoming Professor of Nursing, Obstetrics & Gynecology, and Women’s Studies and Research Professor at IRWG. After earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Romance Languages at the University of Michigan, and spending a few years teaching high school French, Seng decided to change professions and work on women’s health. Volunteering in various capacities helped her discover a passion for the “complexity of dealing with the mind and body in tandem.” Opting to become a nurse-midwife, Seng earned degrees in nursing, midwifery, and eventually a Nursing PhD in Women’s Health from U-M. Her research focuses on the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on women’s health and childbearing outcomes.

Seng’s research grew out of her clinical practice as a labor and delivery nurse and midwife in the 1990s. She describes seeing women “struggle with reactions that seemed related to sexual trauma.” At that time, there was little understanding of how PTSD could affect women. Her colleagues in nursing, midwifery and obstetrics were similarly unfamiliar with this concept, so she reached out to psychotherapists who treated trauma survivors. “Once they ‘named’ what I was seeing as ‘PTSD,’” she explains, “I was off and running to learn more.”

With appointments in the School of Nursing, IRWG and Women’s Studies, Seng keeps one foot in the world of health sciences, and one foot in the social sciences. She enjoys this cross-disciplinary landscape, stating, “It’s helpful because I often need to use language and frame my work in ways that are acceptable and influential within the biomedical mainstream. Staying grounded in a feminist scholarly community keeps me mindful to hold the tension on that and keep challenging the status quo and pointing to violence against women and children as the root of many intransigent social problems—adverse health consequences across the lifespan not least among them.” Seng describes her work as having emancipatory goals, calling it “feminist science with an activist edge.”

Her writing also spans this disciplinary divide, with publications in medical and social science journals, as well as for a more general audience. Medical journals have published her findings on associations between PTSD and adverse perinatal outcomes, such as lower birth weight and shorter gestation. One of her most fulfilling projects is an educational intervention program called The Survivor Moms’ Companion. Designed for pregnant women with a history of childhood maltreatment, this program aims to help them manage PTSD as they head toward giving birth and mothering. While funding has been challenging to obtain for testing the intervention in the U.S., Seng is working with international collaborators to conduct testing in England. She feels strongly that this program helps create knowledge that can be used by lay-women, an important part of her work as a feminist scientist.

Seng expects to keep advancing research on front-line interventions for women with PTSD that aim to improve their physical and mental health. She explains, “There is a strong goal in my work to help women who become mothers to break the cycles of maltreatment and physical, mental, and economic vulnerability. At this point, interpersonal violence and its consequences are very well understood. The critical task now is to reach the populations that need help to recover and regain health with interventions that work and are feasible to deliver. Ten years from now I hope to have a lot of data from testing interventions. I hope to be able to make the case that addressing intergenerational cycles during the childbearing year is a great idea—and something we absolutely can do.”  


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