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Faculty Profile: Elysia Davis

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Emma Atkinson

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Headshot of Professor Elysia Davis.

Elysia Davis has always been drawn to working with children, but not in the way you might think. Rather than teaching or being a child therapist, the University of Denver psychology professor wanted to study kids in the very beginning stages of childhood--as early as in utero.

Davis, who won DU’s 2023 Distinguished University Professor Award and is co-director of DU’s Stress Early Experience and Development Research Institute (SEED), says studying the effects of different prenatal factors on pregnant individuals and their babies is her passion.

“I think the reason I have maintained this excitement and enthusiasm and the belief that pregnancy is really important, is, that during this period of life experiences have intergenerational consequences, affecting both the mother and baby. Yet surprisingly  we know so much less about pregnancy than we do about other major life transitions such as adolescence and puberty or aging and menopause.”

Davis studied at Vassar College in New York before getting her PhD at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota.

“In my dissertation work, I wanted to conduct research on stress hormones and pregnancy, but couldn't quite figure out how to do that,” she reflects. “instead, I engaged in research with preterm infants looking at exposure to synthetic stress hormones that are administered therapeutically to people who are going to deliver preterm, because they mature the fetus’ lungs. And so that was my ‘not-quite-entrée’ into pregnancy—because preterm babies are really supposed to still be in utero.”

Then, her studies took her out to sunny California for post-doctoral research at the University of California-Irvine with Curt Sandman, professor of psychiatry and human behavior within the UC-Irvine School of Medicine.

“That's where I really started working in pregnancy and was able to perform prospective studies examining how maternal prenatal experiences and pregnancy hormone changes influence not only maternal well-being but the baby's outcomes as well,” Davis says. “By conducting these studies, we learned how maternal stress exposures, mental health, and hormone changes affect babies’ cognition, emotion regulation and brain development after birth.”

She remained embedded within the medical school for about a decade before being hired at DU in 2012. Here, she has the opportunity to work with graduate students—an opportunity that didn’t exist at Irvine and is one of the most gratifying parts of her job.

“My vision of coming to DU and working with grad students has come true—I collaborate with fabulous graduate students,” Davis says.

Davis recently wrapped up one of the projects she says she’s most proud of: A study on how mental health intervention (i.e., therapy) can affect the mental health of pregnant individuals and their children.

The early findings, published in the Journal of American Medicine (JAMA), demonstrates that brief intervention (interpersonal psychotherapy) can significantly improve the symptoms of depression and rate of depression diagnoses among people who are pregnant.

Davis is also working with fellow DU psychology professor Galena Rhoades to build upon these findings, thanks to a partnership with Denver Health Medical Center. The partnership will see the team provide group-based prenatal mental health support—in both English and Spanish—to pregnant Denver Health patients.

“I am really excited about this project,” she says. “Because while these the effects of our [JAMA study] are robust, and I would love to see them implemented broadly, we unfortunately don't live in a society where we invest sufficiently in mental health. We're working collaboratively with Denver Health to set up prenatal mental health support that is sustainable, and this group-based model has an advantage of reaching more people.”

Davis says she was honored to receive the 2023 Distinguished Professor Award this fall.

“I feel very lucky to be part of this terrific intellectual environment with all these great collaborators—both the SEED Research Institute that I'm a part of, but also the broader DU community that really is interested in working with community partners,” she says.