In March, sophomore Nainoa Norman Ing presented the research he’s been doing at Chaminade on the placental membranes at an international conference in Paris, France.
He was the only undergraduate to do so.
Norman Ing, a biochemistry major, made the trip to the annual Society for Reproductive Investigation conference with two other team members at Chaminade’s Placental Membranes Integrity Lab along with the professor who leads it: Dr. Claire Wright.
The laboratory is focused on figuring out how placental membranes works in regular pregnancies, and what goes wrong when it fails—leading to premature births.
In a recent interview, Norman Ing joked that he learned more during the week-long Paris conference than during a semester of courses.
Listening to experts in the field discuss their research is “a little eye-opening,” he said.
“You can hear in the way that they talk that they’ve thought about the subject a lot,” Norman Ing said, during a recent interview at the lab. “There’s a huge amount of time behind what they say. So even if they just ask a simple question, it has deeper meaning.”
The trip also reinvigorated the lab’s team members as they tackle big research questions.
Last year, Wright received a three-year, $438,000 National Institutes of Health grant aimed at funding scientific projects to better understand how placental membranes works in the body.
The placental membranes surrounds the fetus during pregnancy. And in normal pregnancies, it naturally fails after nine months, and a woman’s “water breaks.”
Wright, an associate professor of biology at Chaminade, said problems with placental membranes are among the biggest causes of pre-term births. Studying how the tissue operates normally is a vital first step in understanding what happens when things go wrong.
The research is especially significant in the islands.
Hawaii has among the nation’s highest rates of preterm births, and the rate is even higher among populations with greater health disparities, including Asians and Pacific Islanders.
And the impacts of prematurity can last a lifetime. Preterm babies, or those born earlier than 37 weeks, can face physical and cognitive issues into adulthood.
“So when you’re thinking about this as a health disparity and a social injustice, that’s a really important thing,” Wright said, speaking in her lab on a recent day. “It’s impacting people all the way into their adult life and impacting their quality of life.”
Justin Padron, a graduate student at the University of Hawaii, also works at the lab and presented his research at the Paris conference.
And the newest addition to the team—Dr. Chelsea Saito Reis—also traveled to France. She came on in January as a post-doctoral researcher, and saw the Paris conference as a chance to better understand the cutting-edge projects underway in the field of reproductive studies. Reis completed her undergraduate degree at Chaminade in 2012, before going on to get her doctoral degree at the University of New Mexico.
She said research into placental membranes is of emerging interest, but is still nascent. “For something that’s such a normal process, there is still a lot that is unknown.”
Saito Reis and Norman Ing are the first to admit that the Paris trip wasn’t all work, though. The two said they got their fill of French cuisine and took in as many of the sights that they could.
Saito Reis called it an “adventure.” And by the way, she added, the Mona Lisa is actually quite small in person.
While the group was there, they also saw the Yellow Vest demonstrations—which closed thoroughfares in the heart of the city—and described them as something out of a movie.
It was the architecture of Paris, though, that really spoke to Norman Ing.
“Paris is a city of inspiration,” Norman Ing said. “Staying in such a place has reminded me that life is so much more than the mundane routine. Goals exist which one should strive for.”