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Waves of Change: Women's Health Pioneers in Action

Meet Drs. Lisa Taylor-Swanson and Deanna Kepka, two exemplary researchers who are making waves in their respective fields. Taylor-Swanson is on a mission to reduce the disproportionate symptom burden faced by women during menopause, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Meanwhile, Kepka is dedicated to revolutionizing cancer prevention and control services for underserved communities, both locally and globally. Individually, they are making significant strides in women's health, and together, their impact has started making waves abroad.

“We both have a love of learning abroad and a history of working in global projects,” said Taylor-Swanson, who is a licensed acupuncturist educated in East Asian medicine and holds a PhD in Nursing Science. Early in Kepka’s career, she served as a volunteer for the Peace Corps in Jamaica, where her global health work started. “I became passionate about the work there,” said Kepka. “My experience with the corps motivated me to work in the areas of health equity and trying to improve quality of health care and quality of life for vulnerable patient populations.” Now, Kepka works as a population scientist at the University of Utah Huntsman Cancer Institute. where she primarily works as a health services researcher with expertise in human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination, HPV-related cancer prevention, and health equity research. She is also the founder and director of the Mountain West HPV Vaccination Coalition

Lisa Taylor-Swanson and Deanna Kepka in Puerto Rico
Drs. Lisa Taylor-Swanson (far left) and Deanna Kepka (second from right) met with colleagues from the University of Puerto Rico College of Nursing.

Connecting in the Caribbean

Over two years ago, while Kepka held the position of Director of Global Health at the College of Nursing, she began working with other college faculty members and researchers on a global health pilot project in Guatemala. "There were three different aims of the initial project. I worked in aspects related to Cervical Cancer, Lisa Taylor-Swanson was working in acupuncture, and Julie Gee led training related to infant breathing for firefighters and midwives,” said Kepka. As the Global Health pilot project moved forward into the next year, the researchers needed to pivot their research to a new location and focused primarily on women’s health issues.  

Kepka’s experience in Jamaica complemented another Carribean connection from Taylor- Swanson’s own family. “My husband is Puerto Rican and still has family there,” said Taylor-Swanson. “I couldn’t be happier to have an opportunity to contribute where my family is from. With Deanna’s love of the Caribbean and my family connections, it was a win-win for us to go to Puerto Rico to start building those foundational relationships. Eventually, we hope these relationships provide the infrastructure and opportunity to take students there.”

The pair recruited help from a bilingual research assistant, who began networking and reaching out to individuals in Puerto Rico for collaboration opportunities. “Since Spanish is their first language, we wanted to be culturally congruent. We were happy to receive so many positive responses to our invitations,” said Taylor-Swanson. “When we arrived, we held meetings with researchers at Universidad del Sagrado Corazón and two groups of community members. One group through a connection of my aunt-in-law and the other through Profamilias, a clinical and educational service in sexual and reproductive health for people in Puerto Rico.  

Embarking on Global Health Research

MENOGAP, an intervention Taylor-Swanson is working to bring to the island of Puerto Rico, has already been in place here in Salt Lake City. The program is “designed to fill a GAP in MENOpausal women's healthcare and includes group medical care, evidence-based integrative healthcare and education, and social support.” She goes on to explain that “as vasomotor symptoms affect 50-85% of women during perimenopause, symptom bother is such that, if offered the choice, 52% of surveyed women prefer a lifespan shortened by 90 days to further enduring their worst perimenopausal symptoms for 30 days.”  

Here in Salt Lake City, Taylor-Swanson is working with a team to adapt the program for community health worker delivery in Spanish. “I thought, well, who knows, maybe people on the island will be interested in it as well, and it has spread like wildfire. Now, we are working on a pilot grant being written by colleagues at the University of Puerto Rico.”  

On the island, Kepka focused her work on cervical cancer interventions. “My interests aim to improve vaccination rates along with screening and treatment for the prevention of cervical cancer. Puerto Rico has high rates of cervical cancer, but they also have high rates of vaccination,” said Kepka. “With a 10-to-20-year time delay from when populations benefit from vaccination, we’re working in that interim period trying to get women screened who maybe weren’t eligible for vaccination to prevent cancer.”  

Lisa Taylor-Swanson in Puerto Rico
Drs. Lisa Taylor-Swanson, Felix Roman Hernandez, Maria Castro Laboy, Ivette Lopez (UU School of Medicine) & Yadira Regueira Alvarez (University of Puerto Rico)

Advancing Women's Health Innovations

At one point of the trip, during an informal focus group comprised of community members, Taylor-Swanson was asked questions like, “What could I do for back pain or menstrual cramps?” Soon, a women asked about solutions for a frozen shoulder. “I gave her some acupressure therapy. And you know, soon she could move her arm better during the focus group.” As the conversations continued, Taylor-Swanson mentioned, “It was a joy to deliver actionable information and to discuss their thoughts about Deanna’s work with HPV testing. We are eager to see how the work we took part in on the island will continue.”

Regarding the continuance of education and care, Kepka mentioned, “I knew about Vivian Cologne-Lopez’s work in HPV vaccination before meeting her in person during the trip along with another faculty member, Ana Patricia Ortiz. Now, we are aiming to further develop those relationships at the Cancer Center along with others at the College of Nursing at the University of Puerto Rico. They are interested in working with us more long-term, developing a memorandum of understanding, and having some sort of exchange and learning program with our respective student groups.”  

Lisa Taylor-Swanson in Puerto Rico
Drs. Lisa Taylor-Swanson and Ana Vanessa Santiago Sierra (Sagrado Corazon)

Engaging Communities

“The joy of my scientific and clinical work is that its women centered: by and for women,” said Taylor-Swanson. The University of Utah College of Nursing includes many faculty and staff “whose actions transform the health of individuals and communities around the world.” The work beginning in Puerto Rico thanks to Taylor-Swanson and Kepka is just one example of how the College of Nursing "unifies and inspires scientists, educators, clinicians, staff, and students to design, lead, and achieve equitable improvements for the well-being of all.”

Gabriel Mayberry | Communications Manager, College of Nursing

Apr 16, 2024 9:16 AM