When COVID-19 started to spread around the globe in 2020 along with the rampant rise in misinformation about the disease, Dr. Yalda Afshar knew just what to do — deliver the facts to the news media.
A former reporter herself, the UCLA Health physician-scientist felt it was her duty to set the record straight about the disease’s origins and treatments. That’s how Afshar, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology in the maternal fetal medicine division, emerged as a go-to expert about COVID-19 and pregnancy for news reporters.
“I believe journalism is paramount to education, community empowerment and the dissemination of science,” Afshar said. While she has published more than 80 academic papers, she says speaking to the news media is also an important step in getting scientific-based information out to the public.
A reporter in her past life
Afshar’s interest in news goes back years before the pandemic. As a reporter for her high school and college newspapers, she was drawn to the deadlines, diversity of work and collaboration of the newsroom. Afshar even considered becoming a health and science reporter herself. “I thought I would have loved to be a science writer at ‘Vogue’ at one point,” she said.
Working in the newsroom gave her a deep appreciation and respect for reporters working to provide accurate information to the public. “Science writers are incredible because they have expertise in journalism and expertise in understanding science or health or both. And being able to do it well is really tough,” Afshar said.
From an early age, Afshar, who calls herself a blend between chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall and Indiana Jones, knew she wanted to be an investigator. But it wasn’t until the Los Angeles native was an undergrad at UC Berkeley that she realized she wanted to be a physician-scientist — after seeing how laboratory research can have a clinical impact.
While completing clinical rotations in medical school, she was amazed by the changes the human body undergoes during pregnancy. That’s when she decided to take the OB-GYN path. Even after years of experience, Afshar still finds the fundamental process of an egg and sperm fusing to form a set of organs fascinating.
And, being pregnant and giving birth during the pandemic has only strengthened her goal to provide evidence-based care to her patients— the same type of care she’d want for herself.
Prior to the pandemic, Afshar’s research focused on understanding how genes and the environment can cause heart disease in the baby. But she quickly shifted her research by setting up a national registry to track how COVID-19 affects pregnant women and newborns in hopes of finding ways to improve care.
“We had an ethical obligation to focus our energies and our research on unanswered questions with COVID-19 and pregnancy,” she said.
Her ability to switch gears hasn’t gone unnoticed. Dr. Thalia Mok, a maternal fetal medicine fellow at UCLA Health, was inspired by how seamlessly Afshar refocused her research efforts on the virus.
“The pandemic allowed her to show how she can redirect all of her expertise into something that needs answers now, because we didn't have any information on how pregnant people would be affected,” said Mok, who has worked with and been mentored by Afshar for five years.
And Afshar, who counts many scientists and physicians among her mentors, understands the value of guidance. That’s why a key goal is to continue providing mentorship to Mok and others in the field.
Spreading the word about vaccines
When COVID-19 vaccines became available to the public, so too did speculation about their harmful effects on pregnant women. Although pregnant women were excluded from clinical trials for the vaccines out of caution for the fetus’s health, it became increasingly clear over time that the virus can cause more harm to pregnant women — not the vaccine.
So Afshar stepped in to provide commentary in news articles about a comprehensive study that showed unvaccinated pregnant women were more likely to need critical care and suffer a fetal or newborn death. Based on these findings, Afshar advised pregnant women to get vaccinated to help protect themselves and their unborn babies from COVID-19 complications.
Between providing care, running a research lab and figuring out how to improve birth delivery methods, she continues to be an oft-quoted source for pandemic and pregnancy-related news articles. Giving factual information to the news remains a top priority for Afshar: “I just roll up my sleeves and do it. I find it important, so I make time.”