Penckofer named UIC Nursing’s 2022 Distinguished Alum
Sue Penckofer, PhD ’93, MS ’82, BSN ’79, RN, FAAN, wanted to be a nurse as far back as she can remember. Her father, a Chicago firefighter, encouraged her to go to a diploma program – a specialized program that resulted in nursing licensure, but not a college degree.
“[It was a different time, and] in his mind, women never got a college education,” she recalls. “I said, ‘no, I have to go to a university. I have to get a college education.”
Penckofer went on to earn not one, but three degrees from the UIC College of Nursing, and made her career in academia at Loyola University Chicago, rising to associate dean for the Graduate School.
The 2022 UIC College of Nursing Distinguished Alumni Award winner made important strides in understanding cardiovascular disease risk among women. She also worked on influential therapies to treat depression in women with diabetes, long before the topic of mental health was mainstream.
“[Sue] is a stellar alumna, who has improved the daily lives and health of women with diabetes by providing relief of depressive symptoms,” says UIC Nursing professor emerita Carol Ferrans, PhD ’85, MS ‘82, RN, FAAN, and Penckofer’s former classmate. “She also is a devoted teacher and mentor who gives generously of her time to develop novice researchers. UIC has every reason to be proud of Sue’s many accomplishments.”
Becoming a scholar
Penckofer describes her undergraduate experience at UIC as “wonderful.” She liked the proximity to home and the school’s affordability, especially after her father told her he was not going to pay for college. She found herself enamored with professors like Joyce Johnson , who instilled in her an early love of research.
After getting her BSN, Penckofer worked as a general medicine nurse at Rush Medical Center and then transferred to the cardiac surgery unit. Interested in teaching, she decided to return to UIC to get her master’s degree, where she used her clinical experience to publish about quality-of-life and cardiac bypass surgery.
Penckofer met her match in her master’s thesis chair, Marjorie Powers , who proved to be an exacting advisor. When Penckofer turned in her thesis, Powers told her it needed more work.
“It was the first time somebody said I didn’t meet their standards,” Penckofer says. “I went home every day after I was done working and rewrote, rewrote and rewrote. To this day, I think that really helped me to become the scholar that I am.”
Following patients’ lead
When it was time to return to school to get her PhD, she once again chose UIC Nursing.
“To this day, I think the University of Illinois has the best education in the state of Illinois,” she says.
Her doctoral dissertation chair was Karyn Holm, whom she says remains “a great mentor.” Penckofer’s early work found that menopause increases cardiovascular risk among women. Because cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death among women with diabetes, she began presenting her work for professional and lay audiences through the American Diabetes Association.
“I always believe that [patients] will lead you to the next [research] question,” Penckofer says. “At those educational sessions in the ’90s, women started asking questions about mental health that I didn’t know the answers to. I started researching and became fascinated with the whole topic.”
Penckofer created and tested a novel, nurse-led cognitive behavioral therapy program called SWEEP (Study of Women’s Emotions and Evaluation of a Psychoeducational intervention) to treat depression and other negative moods. At the time, therapy was not “a public priority the way it is now,” she says. Her findings were published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, and scientists and clinicians engaged with Penckofer to improve depression assessment and appropriate treatment interventions.
Penckofer also embarked on a large scale, NIH-funded study on the use of vitamin D to relieve depression in women with type 2 diabetes. Her findings demonstrated that even a low dose of vitamin D was effective at improving mood, making it a cost effective option for patients, she says.
First nurse in leadership role
Penckofer took an instructor position at what is now the Loyola University Chicago Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing in 1984 and spent the next 38 years on faculty there, becoming the associate dean for research. She was the first nurse to take on the role of associate dean of the university’s wide-ranging graduate school.
Over the course of her career, Penckofer has published more than 60 papers and has served as the chair of more than 30 dissertation committees. She’s proud of her students who have gone on to obtain NIH funding and assume prestigious positions across the country. Among the students she taught is UIC College of Nursing Dean Eileen Collins, PhD, RN, FAAN, ATSF, and associate professor Pamela Martyn-Nemeth, PhD, RN, FAHA.
“It brings me pleasure to see [my students] become even more successful than I’ve been,” she says. “It feels good that my students have gone on to carry on nursing science.”