Campus News

Staff Spotlight: Meet Chibuzor Babalola, a Physician-Scientist in the Klausner Research Group

Bokie Muigai February 29, 2024
smiling woman portrait

Photo courtesy Chibuzor Babalola

Chibuzor Babalola, MD, MPH, joined the Klausner Research Group as Research Associate in October 2021. Beginning her professional journey in Nigeria, the physician-scientist reflects “I witnessed the challenges of a health care system that was dependent on a failing public health infrastructure. It strengthened my resolve to redirect my clinical career to addressing population health issues.” Since then, Babalola’s experience has spanned applied research in typhoid vaccine development and neglected tropical diseases in West Africa, as well as surveillance epidemiology during the COVID-19 pandemic in Detroit, Michigan. She continues to dedicate her efforts to global health initiatives primarily in South Africa and Botswana.


What are your main responsibilities?

I am an infectious disease researcher at the unique juncture overlapping sexual reproductive health and maternal-fetal health. In this capacity, I lead applied global health research projects, overseeing the scientific aspects and ensuring the design and fidelity of our international projects funded by national, industry, and private donors. I lecture part-time in the Master of Public Health program, and taught ‘Chronic Disease Epidemiology’ and an introductory Global Health course last year.


Tell me more your work on sexual reproductive health and maternal fetal health?

Our mission is centered on improving birth outcomes, particularly in low-resource settings with a high rate of adverse prenatal outcomes. As infectious disease researchers, we advocate for pregnant women who face a significant burden of curable sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that put their unborn children at considerable risk for adverse outcomes. The challenge lies in the fact that many of these STIs often present with no symptoms, and diagnostic screening requires financial resources. Therefore, our efforts are dedicated to providing compelling evidence to policymakers, advocating for STI screening and treatment during pregnancy to positively impact birth outcomes. Simultaneously, we are working to ensure that any proposed policy shift is cost-effective.

In parallel, we investigate pre-term birth and low birth weight outcomes to understand why infants are born too small or too soon, recognizing that adverse birth outcomes have underlying contributors that extend beyond STIs. Our willingness to innovate beyond STIs allows us to holistically address the health needs of our populations.


How do you achieve this?

Our work often takes place in settings with limited resources. We’re not bringing in preconceived notions, but building evidence for stakeholders to care. In studying the association between STIs and birth outcomes in our settings, we seek not only to lay out the problem but to also generate cost-effective approaches and practical solutions to solve challenges we unearth. We are also thinking about how to innovate on what has worked in the past. Are there simple solutions that already exist to reduce adverse outcomes, such as optimizing nutrition in pregnancy? It’s a two-pronged approach — improving policy for the future while providing immediately relevant, scalable, safe, and effective interventions for women in need.


What do you enjoy most about the work that you do?

I find this work meaningful because it is very applied. It also incorporates elements of social justice. We get to engage with hard-to-reach populations and work with them to find solutions. Although our work is incremental and can take time, I appreciate that the space for creativity and the opportunity for career and personal growth it continuously affords. Navigating local and global stakeholder relationships can be challenging, but the process is consistently rewarding. You learn to navigate different people and spaces, while being humble and confident. As a Nigerian now working on this divide of implementation, I find I am uniquely equipped from my life and career experiences to navigate the complexities around various issues, making the journey immensely fulfilling.


What do you like about working the Department of Population and Public Health?

Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, who heads our research lab, has been an exceptional mentor I didn’t know I needed. He is a visionary with enviable capacity. Learning under his guidance has been invaluable in breaking preconceived career boundaries allowing me to transcend my limitations and contribute unhindered through diverse avenues, be it in academia at USC, non-profit, for-profit, policy, or international development. My experience in Klausner’s lab has reinforced the belief that I can make meaningful contributions across various domains.

Moreover, the Department provides our research lab with an atmosphere conducive to innovation without limitations, fostering immense growth within our team. Looking ahead, I am eager to contribute to local initiatives here in the US, such as congenital syphilis projects in Los Angeles, collaborating with USC and county stakeholders.


As a part-time lecturer, what do you hope your students are learning from you?

My foremost objective is to cultivate cultural competence among my students, fostering recognition of the global nature of the world and the global impact of local engagement. I aim to normalize the understanding that global health goes beyond short term advocacy or missions, without disregarding their potential benefits. We also challenge misconceptions that the global health space is distant from our jurisdiction and address limiting preconceived notions around helping others. Students engage in tough discussions around savior complexes and being aware of biases. Using real data in class, we navigate through our perceptions of right and wrong, examining our values, anticipating challenges related to political will versus good intentions. The foundational concept that I strive to instill is the development of a character that can stay the course in global health work, grounded in both humility and competence, and readily open to the populations we serve.