Jennifer A. A. Gubbels
Ciara Reyes-Ton
 on March 09, 2022

Jennifer Gubbels: On Preterm Birth, Inherited Trauma, and Finding Awe in Science

Dr. Gubbels studies the molecular triggers of birth and the role of environmental stress and inherited trauma in preterm birth. She shares her story of finding awe and wonder in her work.

baby's hand embracing grandparent's hand

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

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Dr. Gubbels is an Associate Professor and Natural Science Division Chair at Augustana University. Her lab studies the molecular triggers of birth and the role of environmental stress and inherited trauma in preterm birth. She shares with us her journey into science and how she finds awe and wonder in her work.

What sparked your interest in becoming a scientist, and how did you select endocrinology and reproductive biology in particular?

I grew up on a farm in northeast Nebraska.  My dad was a farmer, and my mom was a medical technologist.  She had a tangible excitement for science.  I remember doing science homework with her, and she would look at me with a big grin and say, “Isn’t that COOL?”  My mother also was an advocate for women and women’s rights.  She often talked to me about how amazingly strong women were, both in their mental resilience and their physical strength to undergo pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing.

Because of these influences, I had thought that perhaps I would be an OB-GYN, however, as graduation approached, I was at a loss for what I should do with my life.  Two weeks before graduation, my advisor handed me a pamphlet for the Endocrinology-Reproductive Physiology program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I had loved my physiology classes, and was especially interested in the science of pregnancy and women’s health, so this program was a great fit.  I started the program the following fall.

What role does Faith have in your work as a scientist? Did you ever have moments of conflict? If so, how did you resolve this?

I have not had much of a struggle reconciling science and faith. Research for me has been a way to tap into the mind of God. In the afterlife one thing that I would love to do would be to stand on the surface or inside of a cell and watch with wonder all that is happening–perhaps with God providing some narration! I am sure that even with all we know about how cells work, watching it in real time would reveal a whole other layer of complexity that we haven’t even considered.  It is amazing to me that with each discovery comes more questions. The questions are infinite, as God is infinite.

I have not had much of a struggle reconciling science and faith. Research for me has been a way to tap into the mind of God…It is amazing to me that with each discovery comes more questions. The questions are infinite, as God is infinite.

I see many examples of God’s love for the world evident in science.  One example is that the discovery of a simple glucose/sodium transporter in the small intestine led to the cure for cholera.  This cure was a simple, low cost packet of glucose and salts that doesn’t have to be refrigerated and is very easy to give patients.  This cure has saved millions of lives, most notably children, who suffer disproportionately from diseases that cause dehydration.  I see the gifts of science in one of my favorite Bible verses Luke 6: 38, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be poured into your lap.”

Another way I see God’s work evident in science is that of accidental discoveries, such as the discovery of penicillin in 1928.  Alexander Fleming, who was known to be a bit sloppy in the laboratory, returned from a two week vacation to find mold growing on the plates he was using to grow bacteria.  The mold seemed to be killing the bacteria.  This led to the use of penicillin as the first antibiotic.  Sometimes, mistakes I have made in my own research have led to something new and interesting.  The gifts of imperfection abound in scientific discovery.  God makes good out of mistakes as well as a study well planned.

Your research has spanned from ovarian cancer to preterm birth. What are some of the current questions your lab is asking, and can you share some of your recent findings?

The state of the immune system during pregnancy is fascinating, because the system is both attempting to keep the mother’s immune system from attacking the fetus, which is technically a foreign invader (according to the immune system), as well as keep the mother and the fetus protected from pathogens.  Therefore, some parts of the immune system need to ramp up, and some need to dial down.  We believe that the placenta plays a big role in regulating immune cells.  Currently, we are investigating how neutrophils, the body’s most abundant immune cell, are altered in the presence of extracts from placentas.  We have shown that they have increased ability to destroy pathogens, which would be important for protecting the fetus from infection.

Dr. Gubbels sitting next to a chemical hood doing research

Dr. Gubbels in her research lab.

You’ve also studied birth at a molecular level, looking at the events that trigger labor, which I find fascinating. In reading some of your work, I learned that immune cells are the primary instigators. What have you uncovered about how these immune cells orchestrate labor, and what are some of the medical applications?  

Neutrophils (cells involved with inflammation), are the main cells that begin labor. This is true for both term or preterm labor (birth before 37 weeks). Neutrophils from the mother’s blood travel from the blood vessels of the uterus into the uterus. This begins a sterile inflammatory reaction, which is what triggers labor. Specific cytokines (signaling molecules) are important for this change in neutrophil behavior at this point in the pregnancy. These cytokines bind to receptors on the surface of the neutrophil that make them more migratory. We know that if we block these receptors, we can prevent preterm birth in mice models. The big question now is, where are the cytokines coming from, and what triggers their release? From the fetus, the placenta, or immune cells in the mother? Where is the signal that initiates the labor process? The answers to these questions are still unknown.

Can you talk a little bit about the role of inherited trauma and ancestral stress in your work on pre-term birth? 

Scientists are just beginning to understand the role that trauma experienced by past generations contributes to health outcomes for people today.  Epigenetic markers, which control how and when genes are expressed, can be inherited as well as influenced by the environment.  Some of the environmental influences on epigenetic markers include severe stress.  We know that some of the stressors that lead to a higher instance of preterm birth include a history of child abuse, low socioeconomic status, being in a natural disaster, domestic abuse, depressive state, and having no support network.  These stressors can lead to inflammation, and inflammation is what initiates the process of birth.

This process can then become a cycle.  The stressors that a mother experiences during pregnancy cause epigenetic markers which change how the fetus’s DNA is expressed.  It makes them more susceptible throughout their lifetime to cortisol, a stress hormone.  This hormone also controls metabolism.  We know that children that are born preterm have a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease and diabetes as they grow into adulthood.

Consider populations of people in our country who have experienced large amounts of stress on a population level–slavery and racism among African Americans, decolonization and forced attendance at boarding schools for Native Americans–these groups have greater incidences of preterm birth, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, just to name a few.  The stress that their ancestors have undergone has been passed on from generation to generation.  This ancestral stress and the stressors that they are still experiencing today all affect their health and well-being.

Although this cycle seems hopeless, there is good news.  These are epigenetic changes, and just as they were altered because of a stressful environment, they can be changed again in a new, healthy environment.  The challenge for all of us is to provide a healthy, supportive, and loving environment for pregnant women and new mothers, especially those that are at risk for preterm birth.

The challenge for all of us is to provide a healthy, supportive, and loving environment for pregnant women and new mothers, especially those that are at risk for preterm birth.

Jennifer Gubbels

You’ve been an invited guest lecturer to seminaries as a part of the AAAS, “Science for Seminaries” grant. What was it like teaching seminarians as opposed to your usual biology majors? 

That was a very fun project!  Speaking to the seminarians was so interesting, as they had very different questions than biology majors.  They challenged me to try to paint a picture of how dynamic and exciting the inside of a cell can be without all of the technical background.  It seems to me that if people can have a baseline understanding of the complexity of one cell, and then imagine that your body is made up of trillions of them, and then expand out to understand that all of these are working right now in the 7 billion people on this planet (not even thinking about the living cells of plants and animals and bacteria!), perhaps they can experience the awe inherent in creation, and an appreciation for science and how it attempts to understand these processes.

What words of encouragement or advice would you offer to young scientists who are following in your footsteps, hoping to pursue a career in science?

Give yourself time, and be patient in determining what you are passionate about.  Listen carefully to what feels interesting and exciting to pursue, and be courageous in pursuing it.  Don’t let others choose your path for you, and don’t worry if your passions change as you move through your career–keep following them.  Take one step and one day at a time.  Sometimes the magnitude of your goal or what needs to be accomplished can seem overwhelming.  Focus on the first step, then the next, and don’t worry too much about steps that are too far ahead.

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About the authors

Jennifer A. A. Gubbels

Dr. Jennifer A. A. Gubbels is an Associate Professor and Natural Science Division Chair at Augustana University.  She teaches introductory biology, physiology, immunology, and has team-taught courses on medical ethics along with history and religion professors.  Her research is in reproductive physiology, where she has published 12 peer-reviewed publications on ovarian cancer, and has recently begun studies to determine the molecular cause for preterm birth.  In addition, she has led a research project to determine the stressors experienced by American Indian pregnant women on reservations in SD which has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Transcultural Nursing.  Gubbels has also published in other journals outside of her main area of expertise, including the Journal for Microbiology and Biology Education as well as Zygon, a religion and science journal (along with Dr. Ann Pederson). She has been an invited guest lecturer to seminaries as a part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science “Science for Seminaries” grant.  Gubbels is the recipient of the Augustana Student Association Faculty Recognition Award as well as the Vernon and Mildred Niebuhr Faculty Excellence Award.
Ciara Reyes-Ton

Ciara Reyes-Ton

Ciara Reyes-Ton is a biologist, science writer and editor who is passionate about science communication to faith communities. She has a Ph.D. in Cell & Molecular Biology from the University of Michigan, and a B.S. in Biology from Valparaiso University. She has served as Managing Editor for the American Scientific Affiliation’s God & Nature Magazine, and previously taught Biology at Belmont University and Nashville State Community College. She is currently the Digital Content Editor for BioLogos and an Adjunct Professor at Lipscomb University. Outside science, she enjoys singing as part of her band Mount Carmell and drinking coffee. She recently released a new single "To Become Human," a song that explores the biology and theology of what it means to be human. She is also the author of "Look Closely," a science and faith devotional that explores the life of Christ by bringing scripture in conversation with science, from water walking lizards to dividing cells and resurrecting corals.