PhD Nurse Profiles

These PhD-prepared nurses are contributing to RWJF’s goal of building a Culture of Health.

Janice Phillips, PhD, RN, FAAN

In the late 1950s, Janice Phillips, PhD, RN, FAAN, was living with her polio-stricken brother and her grandparents in a cramped basement apartment on the South Side of Chicago. Memories of that difficult time have blurred over the last five decades, but one still stands out clearly: the day a public health nurse came to care for her grandmother, who was battling the final stages of a mysterious disease.

“I remember so vividly this nurse coming and changing my grandmother’s dressing,” recalls Phillips. “Then one day I was in nursing school and we were talking about breast cancer, and it clicked: The disease my grandmother had all those years ago was breast cancer. Nobody in my family had ever talked about it.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree, Phillips worked for about a decade and then earned her master’s. She took a job as a nurse clinician in Englewood, a low-income, largely black neighborhood in Chicago, offering residents free breast and cervical cancer education and screening in accessible venues such as beauty parlors and currency exchange shops.

To her great frustration, though, many women weren’t taking advantage of the services she and her colleagues were offering—even though these services were desperately needed. Black women were then—and still are—more likely than white women to die of breast cancer. The experience raised the specter of Phillips’ grandmother, who did not have access to the full complement of early and comprehensive health care that was available at the time. “I’m assuming her cancer was diagnosed at a very late stage,” Phillips says. “It certainly solidified in my mind the value of people having access to detection and treatment services.”

Determined to help other women survive a disease that took the life of her beloved grandmother, Phillips applied to a doctoral program in nursing and was rejected twice before finally gaining acceptance—and a full scholarship and stipend—the third time around. For her dissertation, Phillips studied barriers to breast cancer screening among three groups of black women: those who were employed and had access to health insurance; those who were employed but did not have health insurance; and those who were unemployed and without coverage.

Women in all three categories were less likely to be screened than white women, and black women faced particularly high barriers related to accessibility and affordability, she found. Phillips took what she learned from her influential dissertation to the East Coast, where she became the first black nurse in the country to receive an American Cancer Society professorship in oncology nursing to advance the body of knowledge on breast cancer disparities.

As an assistant professor in the nursing school at the University of Maryland, she oversaw the integration of health disparities content into undergraduate and graduate community health and oncology nursing curricula. She also supplemented her quantitative dissertation study with qualitative research, leading her to coin the oft-cited phrase “fear, fatalism and silence” to describe black women’s attitudes toward breast cancer screening. She has since served as a consultant and an advocate for a variety of organizations. In 2010, she was selected to serve as an RWJF Health Policy Fellow in Washington, D.C., where she built support for implementing of the Affordable Care Act and worked on legislation relating to prescription drug abuse.

Sarah Szanton, PhD, RN, MSN

As a young policy analyst for a women’s health organization in the 1990s, Sarah Szanton, PhD, RN, MSN, looked on in admiration as nurses used their insights into health care to educate policymakers in Washington, D.C. She realized that she could have more influence on health and health care as a nurse and nurse scientist than as a policy analyst, so she decided to become one.

After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing, Szanton cared for migrant workers in rural Pennsylvania and for homeless and elderly people in inner-city Baltimore—positions that gave her an inside look into the challenges to health posed by poor living conditions.

Yet many low-income elderly people lack the ability and the resources to modify their homes so they can live there as long as possible—as most Americans want to do. The health care system is of little help. In large part, it fails to recognize how housing affects health, which leaves many low-income frail elderly in one of two undesirable situations: improperly cared for in their houses or forced to live in nursing homes at great personal or taxpayer expense.

Szanton decided to earn a doctorate in nursing so she could study ways to solve the problem. Now an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing and an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholars program, she is researching ways to make it possible for low-income older adults to live in their own homes for longer periods of time. Her “a-ha” moment came when she realized the potential impact home maintenance workers could have on health. With simple tools and at a relatively low cost, she believed, handymen and women could turn dangerous houses into safe and healthy homes.

She devised a program called Community Aging in Place, Advancing Better Living for Elders, or CAPABLE, which sends teams of nurses, occupational therapists, and home maintenance workers to the homes of low-income, frail elderly participants. After an assessment of all functional areas, the participant decides on functional goals, such as taking a bath or walking to church, as opposed to medical ones, such as reducing blood sugar or blood pressure levels. Studies of the program have found that it improves function, health, and quality of life.

Participants aren’t the only beneficiaries. The program costs about $4,000 per participant, but it may save taxpayers an average of $10,000 per participant because it helps reduce hospitalizations and placements in nursing homes, which cost about $75,000 to $100,000 per year per beneficiary. Szanton has since received grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to further study the effects of the program and potentially make it available on a nationwide scale.

“We feel like we’re really on to something,” she says.

Elias Provencio-Vasquez, PhD, RN, FAAN, FAANP

Washing dishes. It’s the proverbial first step on that storied journey from anonymity to achievement in America, and so it was for Elias Provencio-Vasquez, the first Latino male to earn a doctorate in nursing and head a nursing school in the United States.

Provencio-Vasquez, PhD, RN, FAAN, FAANP, got his start in the health care industry as a teenager more than four decades ago when he took a job organizing food trays at a hospital kitchen in Phoenix. The one-time dishwasher was tapped in 2010 to become the dean of the nursing school at the University of Texas at El Paso. He now works just across the river from Ciudad Juarez, the border city in Mexico where his parents lived before he was born.

In the intervening years, he has practically done it all in nursing. He has served as a clinical nurse, a nurse researcher, a nurse educator, and a school administrator, and he has also been certified as a pediatric and neonatal nurse practitioner.

Provencio-Vasquez is internationally renowned for his pioneering work in neonatal and pediatric care and in women’s health. And he holds fellowship status at a number of institutions, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), where he was an Executive Nurse Fellow (2009-2012). He attributes his stunning rise in part to the many nurses who helped him along the way.

Ever since his first job in the hospital kitchen in Phoenix, Provencio-Vasquez has been inspired by the work of nurses, he says. As a young man, the nurses he met befriended him and taught him about their work, unwittingly steering him into the field. He soon applied for and got a job as a unit clerk in an emergency room at a nearby hospital, and then decided to commit to the profession by earning associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. After more than a dozen years in clinical practice, he earned his doctorate, becoming the first Latino in the country to do so.

For his doctoral dissertation, Provencio-Vasquez tracked premature babies and their families after they were discharged from the hospital and created an intervention for nurses to help parents of premature infants transition from hospitals to their homes. He later shifted his research focus from infants to their mothers, and sought ways to reduce the maternal risk of substance abuse, HIV exposure, and intimate partner violence during and after pregnancy. For his research, he oversaw a study that involved more than 500 home visits to at-risk women who were taught parenting and health skills. “The mothers really responded well to that,” Provencio-Vasquez says. “They just needed to be reminded that they were powerful and great mothers.”

Prior to his current position, Provencio-Vasquez served as associate dean at the University of Miami and as director for the Neonatal Nurse Practitioner program at the University of Texas at Houston and the University of Maryland. Now one of a few dozen male deans at U.S. schools with baccalaureate and/or undergraduate nursing programs, Provencio-Vasquez recognizes that he is a role model for aspiring nurses who are men and who are racial or ethnic minorities. He also serves as a National Advisory Committee member for New Careers in Nursing (NCIN), a program supported by RWJF that provides scholarships to students from groups that are underrepresented in nursing or who are from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“I never thought that having faculty or people that look like you would make a difference, but it does,” he says. “If you see faculty who you can identify with, that does make a difference.”

Mary Lou de Leon Siantz, PhD, RN, FAAN

A Latina nurse from humble beginnings, Mary Lou de Leon Siantz, PhD, RN, FAAN, is a rare and powerful force in academic science.

The daughter of Mexican immigrants, de Leon Siantz learned English as a young girl, excelled in school, and grew up to become a pioneering scientist renowned for her research on migrant health and for her work to prepare health professionals for leadership and policy.

Now she’s working to help younger Latinas follow in her footsteps. An alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Executive Nurse Fellows program (2004-2007), de Leon Siantz heads the Center for the Advancement of Multicultural Perspectives on Science (CAMPOS) at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), an initiative that aims to increase the participation of women, and Latinas in particular, into the male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

The appointment of a Latina nurse to this high-profile position calls attention to the often overlooked fact that science undergirds the nursing profession, and to the valuable role that women, and Latinas, play in scientific endeavors. The face of the United States, and of California, is changing, and she says the university “very much feels that scientists should reflect the demography of the state that they serve.”

Latinos are now estimated to be the largest population group in California, but they are vastly underrepresented in STEM fields at UC Davis. The lack of diversity among STEM faculty discourages aspiring women, Latinas, and other students from underrepresented backgrounds from pursuing STEM careers and contributes to a body of academic research that fails to adequately address issues of particular concern to underserved populations, she says.

As director of CAMPOS, de Leon Siantz, also a professor of nursing at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC Davis, is trying to rectify that by working with the STEM schools at UC Davis to hire new faculty members who will serve as mentors and role models for aspiring female and Latina STEM scholars and who will conduct research of particular interest to underserved populations.

The effort is de Leon Siantz’ latest step on a professional journey aimed at narrowing health disparities. As an RWJF Executive Nurse Fellow, for example, she worked to persuade federal lawmakers to set aside funding for Milagros, a center she established to conduct research and provide training, technical assistance, and service learning in migrant health and education. The name of the center—which means ‘miracles’ in Spanish—reflects the harsh reality for many migrant families, she says. “Anything that’s positive for a migrant is pretty much a miracle.”

The women of color whom she worked with at Milagros were seldom seen as having leadership potential, she explains, and the dearth of female, minority leaders in academic STEM fields discourages female students from aspiring to those kinds of positions. That, in turn, leads to a cycle of underrepresentation in academia and in scientific leadership positions in society.

The CAMPOS program, de Leon Siantz hopes, will begin to break that cycle. “Anybody coming into this program is going to be seen as having future leadership potential.”