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Renowned researcher named 2021 Distinguished Alum

Tonda Hughes

Tonda Hughes, UIC College of Nursing professor emerita, overcame adversity as she paved the way for researchers in the field of sexual minority women’s health.

Tonda Hughes, PhD ’89, RN, FAAN, a pioneer in the field of lesbian and bisexual women’s health, has been awarded the UIC College of Nursing 2021 Distinguished Alumnus Award, the highest honor given to a UIC Nursing graduate.

Hughes is the founding director of the new Center for Sexual and Gender Minority Health Research at Columbia University School of Nursing, where she has been the Henrik H. Bendixen Professor of International Nursing and associate dean for global health since 2017. She blazed a trail for researchers to study the once-overlooked and stigmatized field of sexual minority health—overcoming both discouragement from advisors and national scrutiny—on her way to a career with more than $25 million in NIH funding.

“Those of us who have known Tonda for many years, know she began this research in the 1990s at a time when there was [almost] no concern or acknowledgement of sexual minority women’s health needs,” wrote Mariann Piano, PhD ’88, MS ’84, RN, FAAN, FAHA, in her nomination letter.

Hughes embarked on the first large-scale NIH-funded study of lesbians’ drinking behaviors and related risk factors. Now in its 21st year, it is the longest longitudinal study on sexual minority women’s health. She has continued to lead the field, expanding her scope to look at how victimization – the impact of childhood sexual and physical abuse – leads to mental health and substance abuse risks for sexual minority women.

“Tonda’s research has had a major impact on both knowledge and healthcare for sexual minority women,” wrote Piano, who served on the UIC Nursing faculty with Hughes for decades and is now senior associate dean for research and Nancy and Hilliard Travis Professor of Nursing at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing. She is also a UIC Nursing professor emerita and a former Distinguished Alumni Award recipient.

Since Hughes first started out in the field, sexual minority health studies have continued to gain mainstream recognition. In November 2019, Hughes organized and led the first National Nursing LGBTQ Health Summit, bringing together nursing leaders in LGBTQ education, research and practice.

“The idea of really following your passion—even if it’s not the most popular thing to do —I think that’s so important, and has made all the difference in my life,” Hughes says.

Hughes was a UIC Nursing staple for 27 years, serving as associate dean for global health, head of the department of Health Systems Science and Nursing Collegiate Professor. She received the 2014 inaugural Distinguished Researcher Award from the college. In 2015, she was inducted into the Sigma International Nurse Researcher Hall of Fame. Now professor emerita at UIC, she joined the nursing faculty at Columbia University in 2017.

“I can’t think of any profession that has as many varied opportunities as nursing,” said Hughes in remarks delivered to the College of Nursing’s Class of 2021 during commencement ceremonies. “And I can’t think of any college of nursing that would have prepared me better [than UIC did] to take advantage of those opportunities.”