Physician and Community Health Researcher
It happened during a medical-school classroom lecture, when a particular slide appeared on the screen. It showed a bar graph of obesity rates in the United States, sorted by race and gender. One bar stood out, towering above the others—it was the data illustrating high rates of obesity in African American women.
That slide sparked the curiosity of a medical student in the class that day—and helped to shape the course and nature of her career and her research, which now focuses on obesity and obesity-related illness, particularly among women and their children.
Today, Esa Davis is a board-certified family medicine physician and assistant professor of medicine at Pitt. She’s also a public health expert with a focus in epidemiology, which explores the nature of health and disease in large populations of people. At Pitt, she is among the many leading researchers whose work attracts, collectively, more than $700 million annually in outside research funding into the City of Pittsburgh and this region.
Davis is among the Pitt researchers whose work attracts, collectively, more than $700 million annually in outside research funding into this region.
After earning an undergraduate degree in biology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a medical degree from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Davis wanted to broaden her impact on people's health beyond the doctor's exam room. She was selected into the prestigious Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program at Johns Hopkins University to pursue research and health policy training. While there, she completed a master's degree in epidemiology and honed her research skills, discovering that a significant segment of women first begin to struggle with weight issues and obesity during pregnancy. She wondered about the influence of a mother’s health on her child’s health, both during pregnancy and after birth—and what that might mean for the entire family's health.
What she discovered continues to drive her research and clinical care: “If there’s one moment where you can affect the broadest population, it’s by focusing on pregnant women,” she says.
Research has convinced the family medicine specialist that to treat and prevent obesity and its related challenges, the best approach is to nip the problem in the bud, so to speak, by working to ensure optimal health in expecting mothers. Her studies of weight-related childbearing risk factors in the context of social, cultural, and physical environments will help to inform public health policies and clinical care practices.
More broadly, Davis’s work continues to explore issues like maternal obesity, gestational diabetes, tobacco use, and heart health, as well as disparities in access to and quality of health care based on education level, mental health, poverty, race, and other socioeconomic factors.