Portrait of Dr. Shauna-Kay Spencer
Shauna-Kay Spencer just completed her nursing degree and is continuing her work researching HELLP Syndrome under Dr. Kedra Wallace.
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People of the U: Shauna-Kay Spencer

Published on Friday, January 17, 2020

By: Kate Royals

Shauna-Kay Spencer is a University of Mississippi Medical Center nursing student in the Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing program by day and a self-described “rat surgeon” by night.

Spencer completed her degree in December, but her ties to UMMC stretch back to 2014, when she began working with Dr. Kedra Wallace, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology.

A native of Kingston, Jamaica, who came to the United States to play college soccer, Spencer has worked for the past five years doing research on rats with Wallace, who established an “animal model” of HELLP Syndrome, a life-threatening pregnancy complication usually considered to be a variant of preeclampsia, according to the Preeclampsia Foundation.

The characteristics of the syndrome are hemolysis, or the breaking down of red blood cells, elevated liver enzymes and low platelet count.

Wallace and her team, including Spencer, essentially create the conditions of HELLP syndrome in the rats they study.

“We follow them (the rats) through pregnancy and check blood pressures and do other basic procedures,” Spencer described. “We also do some invasive procedures, so I call it performing rat surgery.”

The goal, she said, is to understand “what happens at the molecular and cellular level in this disease process.”

Spencer and Wallace, along with others on the team, can administer treatments to the rats, such as magnesium sulfate, which is used to prevent seizures in patients with HELLP syndrome.

Spencer said she feels fulfilled doing this work, especially in Mississippi, where rates of HELLP Syndrome are high.

“HELLP Syndrome is an unknown case, it can happen to anybody … There’s no known cause,” she said. “The only cure for this disease right now is to deliver.”

Prior to joining the nursing program, Spencer was the primary person to train everyone in the lab, from undergraduate students to maternal-fetal medicine fellows to new technicians.  

Portrait of Dr. Kedra Wallace

“Over the years Shauna-Kay has grown from a researcher who started off performing and teaching research protocols to what she does now, which is to help me develop new research protocols, and ultimately perform research to hopefully help answer some of the questions that plague women worldwide,” Wallace said. “I am fully confident that whether Shauna-Kay is in the lab or at a patient’s bedside her thoughtfulness and patience will pave the way to a brighter tomorrow.”

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