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Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Elizabeth Reifsnider

Featured: Fall 2017

Get to know Dr. Elizabeth Reifsnider!

Elizabeth Reifsnider, PhD, RN, WHNP, PHCNS-BC, FAANP, FAAN, is the Associate Dean for Reasearch, here in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at Arizona State University, as well as a Nancy Melvin Endowed Professor. Her research and clinical practice have always centered on improving the health and growth of children. She has conducted studies on infant and child growth, nutrition, breastfeeding, and the development of community-based interventions that can be made available to low-income children, primarily through the WIC program. She has also created and implemented successful breastfeeding promotion and obesity prevention interventions that can be delivered through WIC nutrition education classes or through home visit-based programs to postpartum WIC mothers. Her current R01 study with obese low-income children was created through community-based participatory research (CBPR). When she was a District Supervisor for the Oklahoma State Health Department, she implemented coordinated care for high-risk families and children in my district, many of whom were also children with special healthcare needs. She is the Education and Research representative on The Arizona Partnership for Immunization (TAPI), which is a statewide organization that organizes immunization campaigns, provides immunizations to isolated or hard-to-reach communities, and oversees a coordinated approach to vaccine delivery in Arizona. She is  also the ASU representative on the AzCHOW, the Arizona Coalition for Community Health Workers, which is sponsored by the AZ Department of Health Services.

Please tell us a bit about your educational background and how you became interested in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention research.

I have always conducted research with the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC). WIC has been my partner along the way! My practice and research career has always been mother-baby focused, starting with pregnant women, getting them to be healthy, promoting breastfeeding and good food habits, and parenting, so their children are healthy. I earned my Bachelor’s in Nursing from Avila College (now Avila University) in Kansas City, Missouri. Even then, in nursing school, I was looking forward to doing public health, plus I just loved the OB/maternity rotations! When I did community health, I did home visits with the elderly that were attached with the community center. That was a very fun time! I eventually moved to Oklahoma and took a public health nurse position with the Pottawatomie County Public Health Department, and really enjoyed it! At that time, nurses did home healthcare, because there were so few private agencies. For the county health department, I would also do child health clinics where mothers would bring in the children to get weighed, immunized, and examined. We also had a relationship with the Indian Health Service, and their new mothers would be referred to us for follow-up home visits after delivery. I really enjoyed that I was also able to gain cultural knowledge and competencies as well by doing these visits. It was something different every day! That’s one thing I really liked about public health; you got to know the community members. Public health nurses would see the child for healthcare, we’d see the mom for maternity care, do the WIC for the family, see the children for immunization clinic, or the grandparents for chronic disease clinic. It was really cool how we were able to serve the whole family!

The state health department paid for my education to become a women’s health practitioner. I then started traveling doing family planning clinics in 5 different county public health departments, and noticed there were not a lot of women getting prenatal care. I worked with the state health department to set up a maternity program in the counties I worked in. That was very fun! I then became a district supervisor for 4 county health departments, and I supervised all aspects of public health nursing for 5 years in three counties. When I decided I wanted to go into education, I went to UT Austin. I remember talking to my advisor, and I was trying to pick the topic for my research. I told her I’d written my master’s thesis work on breastfeeding and it’d been published, but she told me I should do “children” because no one would be interested in breastfeeding; and I thought, “But I’m a women’s health practitioner, what do I know about children?” When I was a supervisor, WIC would give us reports on children who were anemic, underweight, etc. and I wanted nurses to follow-up with these families. That’s when I determined there were not public health protocols in the community health area for the underweight babies and children. I decided to do my research on this, and submitted my National Research Service Award (F31) to NINR titled “Public Health Nursing Interventions for Failure to Thrive.” It was funded as my first NIH grant! I worked with Williamson County PHN’s and was able to access the WIC population, so everyone I recruited was through WIC. That got me through my doctoral work. I then got an R29 to see if I could apply my work in a clinic setting and get the same outcome. We had moms come in and classes were conducted for them, and the results were good there as well, showing that if moms were taught what kids need to eat and provided the help to make the right choices, kids really do grow. I also did some work on obesity prevention with the Texas State Health Department. I was gathering statistics as obesity was beginning to show up in WIC. I then became the Associate Dean of Research at University of Texas Medical Branch School of Nursing, where I did additional research on obesity prevention with WIC.

How would you describe your current research program to a non-academic/layperson?

In my research I am trying to answer the question: How do we create healthy families? It’s all about eating right, just the right amount, and being physically active every day. What ways can we help parents with limited means…such as those who can’t go to higher end grocery stores to get the “best” or healthiest food and who are on WIC or going to food banks to get their family’s food? Throughout my career I have worked with many nutritionists and have really tried to be skilled in that area myself. So my work is public health, nutrition, and family focused. Part of that includes having some family and child psychology knowledge as well. It’s much more broad than strictly nursing. This all started with the health department and public health…how to do team work and care. So in the early 80’s we were doing “interdisciplinary work” but not labeling it as such. Currently I am working at microbiomes in WIC families recruiting from the Adelante Clinic in Mesa (WIC Clinic) and we’ll be collecting many samples to determine how do the microbiomes differ between mom and babies (breastfed babies, bottle-fed babies, and mixed feeding). Is there something in the gut that predicts their weight for both mothers and babies? We found on my current R01 that if babies are breastfed for at least 2 months, both moms and babies are thinner at 6 months. I am collaborating with people across campus on this one. So many questions that are not known yet about childhood obesity!

How does your research contribute to promoting health and preventing disease in the community?

My research is all focused on growing up healthy! Working with WIC is all community work and assists with the dissemination of health information. Teaching mothers how and what to feed children, giving support for breastfeeding and knowing what the issues are, and teaching what physical activity the whole family can enjoy are all ways my research promotes health. I have always been community research based, worked with many health departments, WIC, faith-based organizations, and community recreation centers. I try to address what peoples’ health issues are, and what’s needed based on their input. Promoting health helps prevent disease in the communities in which we work.

What makes you most enthusiastic about working within the CHPDP?

Being a part of the center gives me the chance to work with great researchers, who have wonderful collaboration skills while doing community work together! All of us have different avenues of approach, so there’s a lot to learn from one another. Dr. Keller and I have worked together since my first obesity grant back in Texas! This center is not helicopter research where you fly in, gather the data, and fly out; rather it is building partnerships with community members and organizations. This is a very important part of all our research!

What advice would you give an early career researcher interested in health promotion and disease prevention research?

Work hard and pick something you absolutely love because it needs to be something you’ll be passionate about even when you get discouraged…and you will! There will be many more discouragements along the way from reviewers (possibly more than encouragements), and you will get articles and grants turned down. So you’ll need to be so passionate that you want to stick with it even after these discouragements!

What do you like to do in your free time away from work?

Phoenix has great walking trails, so I go walking quite often! I also like to read while I exercise, so sometimes I’ll grab a fiction book and exercise for a bit. It’s my form of stress relief! I like to bake and camp, but don’t do either as much as I used to when my sons were home. I have two grandkids I love to visit in Virginia, and I love to visit my other son in Texas as well.