Catching up with Dr. Gaya Murugappan, WRHR Scholar

The Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology is a proud host for the Women’s Reproductive Health Research (WRHR) program. Funded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Stanford is one of 15 program sites nationally that offers this program to up-and-coming physician-scientists. Through the WRHR program, the selected junior faculty scholar has the opportunity to increase their basic, translational, and/or clinical research capacity through training, education, and mentorship. The program provides 2-3 years of support for career development for outstanding junior clinician-scientists.

Last year, Dr. Gaya Murugappan was awarded the WRHR scholarship, the first given in 7 years. Murugappan graduated from Harvard Medical School and completed her residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology and a Fellowship in Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility here at Stanford.

Murugappan's faculty mentor, Dr. Ruben Alvero, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the Division Chief of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility, had the following to share: "I am astounded at how productive Dr. Murugappan has been in the first year of her WRHR. She has published 6 first author publications and has been on a total of 8 papers. This blistering pace of research and writing is a result of protected time and exceptional talent. Dr. Murugappan has had the opportunity to establish collaborations with investigators both at Stanford and nationally. She has already published innovative research that has had an impact at the nexus of reproductive endocrinology and maternal health. I know for a fact that by the end of her WRHR fellowship she will measurably improve our knowledge in this critical area of medicine."

Now having completed her first year in the program, we took a moment to catch up with Murugappan and learn about her research and insights. 

Taking a life-course approach

We can and should do a better job counseling patients about the implications of an infertility diagnosis

Using data from Stanford’s Electronic Health Records and the Women’s Health Initiative, Murugappan is tackling fertility from a whole new approach. 

“My overall research premise is to explore infertility as a marker of overall health,” Murugappan shared. “My goal is to rewrite the narrative on how we approach fertility care. Right now, we very much focus on giving patients a baby — which is, of course, what they want. But I think we can and should do a better job counseling patients about the implications of an infertility diagnosis beyond their reproductive years.”

Making time for groundbreaking research

In the last year, Murugappan has completed research that indicates an association between women’s infertility and increased risk of maternal morbidity and increased risk of all-cause mortality. Murugappan has also collaborated with Dr. Stephanie Leonard and the Division of Maternal Fetal Medicine to develop a preconception risk prediction index for severe maternal morbidity among infertile women as well as investigate an association between adverse maternal outcomes and preconception paternal health. All of these studies were due in large part to the time that the WRHR affords her. 

Because a good balance between patient care and research can be hard to strike on a full clinical load, the ability to have protected time dedicated to research is an asset that the WRHR program provides.  

“Clinical care is very rewarding but also very consuming. Doing meaningful research while having a full clinical load is hard,” she noted. “Having three-quarters of my time dedicated to research is really key.” 

The gift of mentorship

Another highlight of being a WRHR scholar according to Murugappan is the mentorship provided to her as a junior faculty member. 

Acknowledging the well-renowned faculty at Stanford, she shared that, “The WRHR has given me tremendous mentorship, and has opened doors in terms of receiving mentorship which otherwise would be very difficult to access. I’ve worked most closely with Dr. Ruben Alvero and Dr. Suzan Carmichael, Dr. Virginia D. Winn, Dr. Melissa Bondi and Dr. David Stevenson. I am really excited to be the first WRHR scholar in a number of years, and I wanted to acknowledge the support that I have also gotten from Dr. Ruth Lathi, my clinical and research mentor since my intern year, as well as Elizabeth Seckel, our grant writer, and Dr. Stephanie Leonard, our biostatistician. They are all critical to my progress and I am so grateful for their support and guidance.”

From research to patient care

While one might assume that research and patient care are siloed activities, Murugappan has found that her research enhances her ability to inform patients. 

“When patients ask me questions, it is very gratifying to show them a section from a recent publication that helps address their concern” Murugappan said, “In medicine, and also in fertility care, there are a lot of things that people do without good evidence and often for anecdotal reasons. It’s really nice to practice evidence-based medicine and when some of the evidence comes from you, it's super exciting. I also feel that I am providing better patient care because my recommendations are substantiated, and I think that’s why patients come to Stanford.”

Dr. Murugappan recently applied for an individual K award to further develop her research career. 

The WRHR at Stanford Program bridges clinical care with excellence in basic, clinical and translational research to address the national shortage of qualified investigators in this discipline. The program includes a structured training plan of sufficient duration to achieve independence; individualized didactic education based on skills, competencies, and needs; extensive team-based mentoring; hands-on research; and protected time with immersion in a vibrant research community. Learn more about the program here.