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UIC Nursing Alumni–JoEllen Wilbur

JoEllen Wilbur

Professor and Independence Foundation Chair in Nursing, Associate Dean for Research, Rush University College of Nursing; Professor Emerita, UIC College of Nursing

When JoEllen Wilbur, PhD ’84, MS ’75, FAAN, was a young nurse practitioner working at a primary care clinic near Binghamton, New York, the physician with whom she practiced sent her all his middle-aged, female patients.

“He said, ‘You can see all the mid-life women, because I don’t understand their issues,’” she recalled.

His blind spot turned out to be her passion, as she discovered she loved women’s health. It became the focal point of her research career, and she has spent the last 30 years as an innovator in the field—studying mid-life women, their symptoms, cardiovascular health and physical activity.

Discovering research

As a master’s student at UIC in only the second class of the family nurse practitioner program (then a master’s degree program), Wilbur had dreaded the master’s thesis, but was surprised to find out she truly enjoyed research. Back then, there were no desktop computers, and instead she used punch cards to crunch and analyze data.

After working as a nurse practitioner in New York, she returned to UIC for her PhD. It was an exciting time for women’s health, she recalled, and an interdisciplinary women’s health research group headed by Dr. Alice Dan was just beginning on campus.

“I found the classes fascinating,” she said. “I loved learning about gender issues and women’s health. I did my dissertation on menopausal symptoms. That was something that wasn’t looked at much then. It certainly wasn’t looked at by nurses. It was kind of an untapped area.”

Impact on the field

Wilbur spent 29 years at UIC Nursing, starting as instructor and later serving as associate dean for research, before taking a position at Rush University College of Nursing in 2008. She has been continuously funded by NIH and has more than 140 journal articles and nine books or book chapters to her name.

In the 1990s, she was a member of a team of eight researchers from across the U.S., funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that published seminal papers on the determinants of physical activity in women.

“My earliest contribution was to modify existing measures of physical activity that had been developed for men to reflect the uniqueness of women’s lives,” she said. “We also started making sure we included a diverse sample with African American women, Hispanic women, and women from all cultural groups.”

Through a series of NIH-funded clinical trials, she and her team developed the Women’s Lifestyle Physical Activity Program, a cost-effective, evidence-based behavior change intervention to increase physical activity adherence and improve cardiovascular outcomes in women. The program has been disseminated and modified for communities in the U.S. and abroad, and current modifications of the intervention are being tested in four NIH-funded studies.

Wilbur learned quickly to include community input to tailor the interventions to “the culture and environment where a woman comes from,” she said. Most recently, that included interventions to increase physical activity among African American women, work that has had “a major impact on the field,” says UIC Nursing Collegiate Professor Shannon Zenk, PhD, MS ’99, RN, FAAN.

The UIC College of Nursing honored her with a 2020 Outstanding Alumni Achievement Award.

Wilbur is currently a member of the National Advisory Council for National Institutes of Nursing Research at the NIH, an appointment made by the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. Wilbur, who is a devoted mentor to students, post-doctoral fellows and junior faculty, was named to the Sigma Theta Tau International Nurse Researcher Hall of Fame in 2013 in Prague, one of nursing’s highest research honors.