Melissa Gilliam, MD, MPH

Donor Stories

New Center Addresses Sexual Health  

At her clinic at the University of Chicago Medicine, sexual and reproductive health expert Melissa Gilliam, MD, MPH, recently examined three young patients who had been having sex since the age of 12.

“Sexual initiation was not voluntary for all of them,” Gilliam says. “They had almost no knowledge of sexually transmitted diseases, no knowledge of contraception, very little understanding about how to communicate in relationships, and there was complete secrecy around one girl being sexually assaulted.”

Gilliam, section chief of family planning and contraceptive research, professor of obstetrics and gynecology, and pediatrics, and associate dean for diversity and inclusion, recently took on another role. As director of the newly established Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health (Ci3), Gilliam, along with other faculty, will address issues like the ones involving these young patients. 

Leveraging expertise of community 

Established to leverage expertise from across the University, the Center will address reproductive health along the trajectory from birth to adulthood and work across disciplinary lines. Through this lens, Ci3 intends to focus on issues such as pregnancy timing, undesired pregnancy, postpartum hemorrhage, rapid repeat pregnancy, sexuality education, youth development, body image and obesity, sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDs, and reproductive cancers, among other areas.

“The work we are doing feels incredibly novel and optimistic,” Gilliam says.

Bringing together University faculty, staff, and students from multiple disciplines—including but not limited to sociology, social service administration, medicine, economics, policy, business, and education—the Center will cultivate partnerships with local, national, and global communities and stakeholders to develop intervention strategies to advance reproductive and sexual health.

Center receives funding from university, donors
Seed funding from private donors was a catalyst in the University’s decision to commit $500,000 to the Center, and to provide it with newly remodeled space and computing equipment. Additionally, Gilliam received $140,000 from an anonymous donor, $20,000 from the Libra Foundation, and $11,000 from the Mary Wolhford Foundation.

For Gilliam, these contributions were an early demonstration from the external world to the University that issues of sexual and reproductive health matter. “It’s my fundamental belief that this is an area that is not only critically important to everybody, but an area in which we have a great ability to do something meaningful,” she says. “One thing that I’ll look for at the five-year mark is that we’ll have established a footprint in local, domestic, and global sexual and reproductive health.”

One of the core drivers—especially in Gilliam’s work with adolescents—is the need to develop programs and intervention approaches that are relevant to youths’ lives. Collaborating with colleagues in fields such as English literature has helped her incorporate storytelling with youth as a central activity for informing projects.

“Storytelling is one of those components, and we believe it supports students within their school and environment,” Gilliam says. “It also allows youth to talk about themselves in a way that isn’t as fettered and stultifying as it is in a clinical situation, where they respond to a list of questions.”

In her other roles, Gilliam focuses on how to make behavioral and biomedical interventions relevant to the communities or patient populations for which she works. For example, several types of contraception are available, yet the rate of unintended pregnancy is high because many people lack access to contraception, don’t use it, or use it inconsistently.

So the issue isn’t necessarily to develop a new method of contraception, but to understand better what youth need and to explain issues to them in ways that make preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections relevant to their lives, she says.

“Sometimes it’s by giving someone freedom to tell stories that you actually learn why people do what they do, but it’s often the story behind the story,” she says. “Storytelling helps us understand context and writing helps youth gain new skills. One of our goals is to give youth tools that will help them be more successful as they go through school and their lives.”

solving real-world problems
By bringing together multiple disciplines to tackle issues of reproductive health—particularly among youth who live in disadvantaged communities—the Center will be able to apply the resources of an academic institution to solve real-world problems.

“When you think about the field of medicine, doctors have an area of specialization, but that doesn’t mean all medical problems are confined to one organ system,” Gilliam says. “We know this very well in medicine that we have to work in collaborative teams. It’s no different in solving major health problems.”

Ultimately, the ideas that will develop by working with multiple disciplines are what gets Gilliam excited about the Center. “It’s fun to collaborate with people who never would have thought they had a role in this field,” she says. “I envision a Center that feels very porous for the external community so that when community members or thought leaders have an issue, they see us as a resource to help move their issues forward.”