Award-Winning Scholar Honored for Work to Reduce Health Disparities

    • March 16, 2010

Word about the work of Nurse Faculty Scholar Kynna Wright-Volel, Ph.D., M.S.N., M.P.H., is getting out.

In January, Wright-Volel received a surprise gift in the mail: a plaque from the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board thanking her for her work in narrowing health disparities. That unexpected honor came after a surprise nomination to join the board of the Equal Health Opportunities Committee of the American Public Health Association.

“I am not sure how they found out about me,” she says.

Her best guess is that the newfound attention is coming her way as a result of two awards she won last year for her work to improve the health of disadvantaged Latino and African American children. In 2009, Wright-Volel won the Minority Health Community Trailblazer Award, which is given by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in recognition of work to eliminate health disparities. She also won the 2009 Young Professionals Award from the Maternal and Child Health Department of the American Public Health Association.

Wright-Volel was one of just 15 leaders from around the country selected in 2008 as the first-ever cohort of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholars—a prestigious award given to promising junior faculty members at schools of nursing.

The more recent awards recognize Wright-Volel’s work to help overweight Latino youth and their parents lead healthier lives—an interest that grew out of her experience as a nurse practitioner 13 years ago in California.

As a clinician, Wright-Volel often delivered her standard 10-minute sermon on healthful living to parents of overweight children, but they didn’t seem to get the message, she says. Why didn’t these parents take steps to reduce the risk their overweight children faced of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease? And why, she wondered, were minority children—especially Latinos and Blacks—more likely to be overweight and unhealthy than White children?

An expert in racial and ethnic health disparities and in pediatric health, Wright-Volel began to investigate these questions at the behest of Francine Kaufman, M.D., former head of the National American Diabetes Association. Kaufman asked Wright-Volel if she would be interested in tailoring a healthy lifestyle program she had pioneered called Kids N Fitness to Latino and Black children in urban settings.

Wright-Volel signed on and devised a three-year intervention to study the effectiveness of the program at two mainly Latino schools in inner-city Los Angeles. Last year, 70 children between the ages of 7 and 12 and their parents attended exercise and nutrition classes once a week for a six-week period. Children also received health examinations and complimentary exercise gear such as tennis shoes and pedometers.

In the second and third years of the program, Wright-Volel will recruit another batch of 140 children and their parents. And she is currently working to secure grants to expand the program in other schools, and ultimately across the nation.

The final results of her study are not yet in, but preliminary findings suggest that the customized course is a success. At the conclusion of the program, half of the child participants had smaller waists and lower body-mass indexes, and about one-third of the participating parents lowered their blood pressure.

Program participant Guicela Galvan, 28, the mother of 7-year-old twin girls, says she and her daughters changed a number of unhealthy habits after participating in the program. Thanks to the program, Galvan now substitutes water for sugary juices and sodas; cooks with olive oil because it is less fattening than other oils; purchases fewer cookies and sweets; and limits the amount of television her daughters watch.

She’s noticed a big difference in herself and her daughters since she’s made those changes, she says. “I have more energy. And when we go to the market, my daughters tell me we need to eat more vegetables and fruit because they know they won’t feel good if they eat too much meat or unhealthy food.”

Wright-Volel’s Study Reveals Cultural Barriers to Healthy Living

The study has also revealed cultural barriers to healthy living among Latinos. Latina mothers in the program, for example, fear that thin children reflect poorly on their parenting skills, Wright-Volel says. And Latino fathers fear that too much physical activity will delay the onset of menstruation. Culturally sensitive changes to the Kids N Fitness program education curriculum can help ease parental fears such as these, Wright-Volel says.

The granddaughter of a lay nurse, Wright-Volel started her career as a clinical nurse practitioner in Los Angeles but shifted her focus to public health after one child patient showed her the limitations of individual practice.

While working at the Eisner Pediatric and Family Medical Center in Los Angeles, Wright-Volel repeatedly tried and failed to successfully treat one young boy for problems associated with asthma—her area of clinical expertise. One day, the boy came in to her office complaining of ear pain. After a quick examination, Wright-Volel discovered a cockroach in his ear; it was at that moment that she realized that she couldn’t successfully treat the boy’s asthma on her own.

“He was being exposed to environmental triggers that I wasn’t aware of, and I didn’t know what to do about that,” she recalls. “I tried to refer him to someone, but I had a hard time linking services. I felt like I was not being the best clinician I could be, so I decided to go back to school to learn more.”

With her master’s degree in nursing in hand, Wright-Volel earned both a master’s degree and a doctorate of philosophy in public health at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where she specialized in pediatrics and health disparities. She is now an assistant professor at the UCLA School of Nursing, a volunteer with international medical associations and a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Nurse Faculty Scholar. Wright-Volel also is the recipient of an Irving Oschin Award, a Lulu Hassenplug Award and a Kaiser Permanente Nursing Scholarship Award.

The Nurse Faculty Scholar Program provides outstanding junior nurse faculty with salary and research support, leadership training programs, and mentorship opportunities. The program aims to cultivate future leaders in nurse education and enhance the academic productivity and overall excellence of nursing schools.