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Game Changer: Bernard Harlow

Bernard Harlow, Ph.D.

Bernard Harlow is one of the nation’s leaders in female reproductive health research, looking closely at the relationship between psychiatric disorders and reproductive function. His work is making a big impact in Twin Cities communities and has led to the largest NIH grant of its kind in his subject field.

Harlow’s career began in 1987 at Harvard’s Medical School and School of Public Health. While there he co-founded the Obstetrics and Gynecology center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Harvard Medical School affiliate. After 18 years at Harvard, Harlow started working at the University of Minnesota in 2005.

One major focus of his research is vulvar pain. Vulvar pain affects some women throughout their whole lives, but is most common in females aged 18-25. By the time women reach age 40, eight percent of them experience vulvar pain, making sexual intercourse and vaginal activity of any kind extremely painful. Vulvar pain is only examined by a handful of researchers worldwide, even though it is a prevalent disorder.

“The amount of research dollars that are available for vulvar pain research pale significantly to the magnitude of the problem,” Harlow said.

Vulvar pain is not a very well-known condition and less than 50-percent of females with the disorder seek care.

“Much of the research has been done with women who have been seen in clinics and they really represent just the tip of the iceberg,” Harlow said.

In order to combat underreporting of vulvar pain, Harlow screens people in the Twin Cities for the disorder. So far, he has been involved with about 30,000 screenings. This approach is especially effective, because it both identifies females with vulvar pain and helps Harlow understand just how prevalent the condition is among women.

Harlow believes it is important to raise awareness of the disorder on all levels. His work has helped the onset of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) campaign that seeks to do just that.

“I’d like to think their educational initiative was largely due to the population-based research that we’ve done,” Harlow said. “To be able to illustrate the magnitude of this problem.”

Harlow spends a good chunk of time conducting research, but wears other hats as well. He still has an Adjunct Professorship at Harvard and is also the head of the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health within the School of Public Health.

On top of that, Harlow is the associate director for the community engagement core of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute.

“Our mission is to align the resources here at the University with our community partners to really help make an impact on the health of disparate populations in the community,” he said.

Harlow’s dedication to raising awareness for a quiet but prevalent disorder among women, his push for national and community-based research into women’s health issues, and his continued community partnerships show just how much of a game changer he is in his field.

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