From horses to health habits, prof. Christine Kennedy's varied route to nursing

CKennedy - for web
Dr. Christine Kennedy, PhD, RN, FAAN
Photo: Dan Addison, UVa photographer

Christine Kennedy arrived at UVA earlier this fall after two decades of teaching and scholarship at UCSF School of Nursing. An internationally known expert in pediatric nursing and children’s behavioral health, Kennedy’s research – which focuses on the development of health habits early in life – has garnered more than $10 million in funding across a dozen studies, yielding more than 80 publications.

A professor of pediatrics in UVA’s School of Medicine, Dr. Kennedy joined the School of Nursing earlier this fall as the Sly Professor and to direct its PhD program.

 

Talk briefly about your journey into nursing. Who - and what - influenced you?

Actually, it wasn’t a who but a “what” that sent me down this career path. As a kid I wanted to be a horse vet, but my parents thought it might be better to channel me to something safer!  I always enjoyed working with children and as a teenager I was a camp counselor for kids with Muscular Dystrophy. At camp we helped children ride horses as a way of getting them out of their wheel chairs -- This was before the field of equine therapy was recognized. It was really gratifying to see the absolute delight they expressed when liberated from the confines of immobility and enjoying the freedom of movement on a horse. Later in college I  pursued a degree in Human Nutrition but found I missed working with children and so went back for a second undergraduate degree in nursing. 

Since then my jobs have all been in pediatrics in some capacity; ranging from newborn Intensive Care Unit as a staff nurse and nurse clinician to pediatric primary care clinics as a PNP. And although I loved the clinical environment I found myself asking questions about what we did in these settings and not having the tools or education to test or design new strategies to answer them. So from there I went on to obtain a PhD. And although a nurse can have an important influence on one patient or family in a clinical encounter, I found working with classrooms of nurses and research teams to be very motivating as we as a group pursued answers to health care questions and dilemmas.


You were at UCSF for more than 20 years. How’d we get lucky enough to get you to U.Va?

You have a very persuasive dean! And it was a good match at the right time. It is important for me to be at an institution where both the educational and research mission are equally valued. Many schools focus on just one or the other, but only really committed places can excel at both.

I think something very unique is bubbling beneath the surface here at UVA’s School of Nursing which could be transformative in the world of academic nursing. Here, there is energy of reinvention. I hope to be part of making that flourish.  


You study how and why children adopt certain health habits. You’ve also studied the effect of screen time on kids, a subject that always stirs a lot of interest. Your current work is on using smartphones to reduce health disparities… what specifically are you looking at? What will do you do?

Childhood is how the human race begins and is also its future. Many of our health behaviors are based on habits formed during childhood and once established, are increasingly resistant to change. 

For example sedentary behavior contributes to the top chronic health conditions – diabetes, heart disease, obesity – and several recent studies report that 40 percent of premature deaths can be attributed to individual unhealthy behaviors. The “prescription” or treatment for most of these includes some form of lifestyle or environmental change – things like food and physical activity – and yet primary care clinicians feel ill-equipped to engage and counsel patients effectively during health care encounters. My current work builds on these issues and is oriented to designing and testing technology to aid clinicians and consumers alike to disrupt their sedentary lifestyle in small, doable behavior “nudges” that help establish new habits.

Many consider nursing schools as places where those who will work at the bedside are schooled, but you direct the PhD program and so deal in the currency of nursing scholarship, graduate research and academia. How will you attract students to the program so they’re thinking beyond bedside care?

Around the world health care is practiced in a significant range of settings – in homes, clinics, schools, back streets, hospitals and hospices. That’s one of the beauties of the profession.

And nursing cannot make a difference without research. Graduate education is about advanced practice and knowledge generation; and in our incredibly complicated and sophisticated scientific healing milieus, we need the best and brightest to take on the challenges and explore the solutions for tomorrow.

Nurses are typically problem solvers. Those who are want to be thought leaders and scientists of the future should be supported in the pursuit of a PhD.  Innovation and inspiration are equally important, along with the requisite mastery of the “tools of the trade” and the incubator of time to be exposed to and develop the necessary skills. 

I don’t think we need to lure or entice candidates as those who are naturally curious, ambitious and motivated will seek out the opportunity to advance themselves and the profession – those people come to us. What we do have to address is reducing the fiscal inequities experienced by faculty who are paid significantly less than their clinical counterparts despite having more and further education. If we don’t do this there will be less incentive for anyone to take a faculty role in nursing in the future and then we will have even fewer nurses being educated at any level in the US.

 

What do you want people to know about the PhD program here?

My philosophy is that research is all about relationships - scientific and personal.  So to that end we have a person-centered approach that starts with our admission process and continues throughout the academic experience. We anticipate that students will bring the motivation and we will provide the intellectual stimuli and social connectedness. The school is both small enough to be supportive of each individual student (we accept only 8 to 10 highly qualified applicants per year) and yet big enough to offer a breath of intellectual perspectives and expertise among our diverse and talented faculty. 

 

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