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Demystifying the uterus for better births

Professor Susan Wray is Professor of Physiology at Liverpool University and an Academy Fellow who investigates the causes of problems in childbirth.

We think of modern pregnancy and childbirth as relatively safe, but things can go wrong with devastating effects. 

Around the world, a third of a million women die giving birth every year and ten per cent of births are premature.

Here in the UK, ten babies are stillborn every day while tens of thousands of women will undergo emergency caesarean sections.

In all these situations, the activity of the uterus – or the womb – is a factor. The performance of this organ has a profound impact on childbirth, but we know surprisingly little about its biology and how it can go wrong. You could call the uterus the Cinderella of the organ world.

I’m working on filling some of the gaps in our knowledge. For example, we don’t know much about why some mothers start contractions weeks or months early, while others need to be induced. Or why the uterus might start to fail and its muscles weaken.

I think we could make more use of biomarkers – chemicals that we can test for in the blood that indicate future problems. And we need to develop more sophisticated treatments that are tailored specifically to be safe for mothers and their unborn child.

We talk of child birth as a miracle, something marvellous and mystical. I’m not advocating the over medicalisation of childbirth, but I do believe we can do more to make it safer.

I’ve been an Academy Fellow since 2002 and that’s helped me to champion research in the North West and to make sure women are properly represented in science, an issue that is very close to my heart.

I am a “doer” and want to do things that make life better, especially for the female of the species. My work is broadly focussed on female reproduction, and so my passions come together.

I must admit that I always think I am only as good as my last paper, grant or achievement, and none are ever quite good enough. So the motivation is always to work hard and do better. But I try to end each day with some self-indulgence – spending time with the people I love, a piece of music, a crime novel and always a glass of fizz. I’m not aiming to die a saint!

Professor Susan Wray is a Fellow of the Academy , an Academy regional champion, an Academy mentor and attended the BBC showcase for Academy women experts . She is also a member of the SUSTAIN reference group, the Academy’s programme that supports women researchers to thrive in their independent research careers.

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