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New Faces: Jenny Pharr

UNLV's first graduate of the community health PhD returns to see through her work in creating a healthier community.
People  |  Oct 14, 2013  |  By Brian Sodoma
Jenny Pharr joins UNLV as an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health. (Aaron Mayes / UNLV Photo Services)

Jenny Pharr has safely established herself as a crusader for fairness and equality in the healthcare field. With more than 15 years of experience on the administrative side of health care, Pharr was moved to do more in the field, when she entered her Ph.D. program at UNLV in 2009.

She was motivated to bring changes to health care by her father, a paraplegic who battled a lack of access to necessary healthcare accommodations. Pharr's doctoral research centered on medical professionals' perceptions of people with disabilities, and she furthered her research work later with The Lincy Institute, where she looked at community health issues and disparities.

Her Lincy work dealt specifically with Southern Nevada Strong, a HUD grant-funded program that uses in-depth research to analyze and drive change for community health and education issues. Pharr helped co-author the program's Existing Conditions report, and hopes to see that information used to propose solutions to community health problems in the valley.

In 2012, Pharr was the first to receive a doctorate in public health from the School of Community Health Sciences. Today, she is a new assistant professor of environmental and occupational health and hopes her passion and research makes a positive impression on the lives of UNLV students.


Why UNLV?

I had two other job offers; it wasn't the only place I considered. But when it came down to thinking about UNLV versus other places, the connections I already have to Southern Nevada, working with Southern Nevada Strong, I invested a lot of time with that and I'd like to see it through. It's just having that connection to community.

In Virginia or Michigan I'd have to start from scratch. Here I'm so connected to the community. In the School of Health Sciences I work with faculty who have received national grants that I can go to for help. Not every university would surround you with those mentors and collaborators.

What's the biggest misconception about your field?

I guess it's the difference between health and public health. Health is very focused on an individual. Where in public health we're more focused on population health or how diseases move through a population.

(Public health) is everything -- the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, infectious disease, HIV, the flu, chronic disease, how we build communities to either enhance health or create barriers to health. It's about trying to get people to be physically active, eat healthy foods, have safe sex. It's so broad, people don't realize that until they take a class and see how much is involved.

What's the biggest challenge in your field?

Sometimes funding is a challenge. Sometimes I think public health, in general, will drop off the radar. Then something will happen and bring it into focus. In the 80s, we had the cure for polio and smallpox, but then HIV came along and public health was back on the forefront. Sometimes there will be dips in funding because people think we've solved all the problems in public health. Then something happens. Whenever something drops out of our consciousness, then funding gets cut. Then we have to wait and it'll eventually come back.

What inspired you to get into your field?

I think it was because I worked in health care so long. When I started my degree in public health, I really thought I wanted to go into healthcare administration because that's what I'd been doing. But my first fundamentals of public health class opened my eyes and helped me make that shift from individual patient to the bigger idea of what health is on the population level.

When you are healthcare focused, you might look at a patient from the perspective of he or she being sick because of not taking medicine. So it's a non-compliant patient. From a public health perspective, you are asking "Is it because they don't have access? They can't afford it? Is the pharmacy too far away and they don't have a car? Are things not set up for this person to be healthy?" Rather than just blaming the person for not being healthy, you're looking from a bigger perspective.

What was the proudest moment in your life?

Getting my doctorate. It was something I wanted to do since graduation with my master's in 1993. When I finally found the right program and was able to accomplish that, it was a very proud day in my life. Another one would be qualifying and running in the Boston Marathon.

One tip for success?

Focus -- don't let yourself get sidetracked by too many different things. It certainly has been my strategy with being able to earn a Ph.D in three years.

If you could fix one thing in the world, what would it be?

Health disparity. We know that people who have higher incomes tend to be healthier than those with lower incomes. There's this whole disparity of how healthy we are based on our socio-economic status. If I could, I'd want the lower socio-economic groups to have better health.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

Most people are surprised to learn I'm from Texas, because I don't sound like it. (Laughs) When I first moved to Albuquerque (from Texas), I decided to change that. I was saying 'ya'll' and 'fixin'' and people didn't understand what I meant.

What kind of professor do you want to be known as?

I would love to be known as a professor who inspires students. I've certainly been inspired by the faculty I've had. I hope I can inspire students to look at the world a little differently, inspire them to go on and do great things, realize that there is a problem and then they want to go out and fix it. That's what I'd like to be known for.

What can't you work without?

I do a lot of research and data analysis. So it'd have to be my computer. Without access to information and what other people are doing in the field, what publications are coming out, I couldn't do my job.

Who is your hero?

My dad. He certainly faced a lot of obstacles and challenges in life, but he never let that keep him from being successful. Even though he was paraplegic, he was an engineer for Shell Oil. He taught me to shoot a basketball while sitting in his wheelchair.

Hobbies?

Being physically active outdoors. This summer I spent a month in Colorado hiking, biking, those sorts of things. I have two Sheltie dogs. They hike with me. I also like photography, going out and taking pictures of nature.