Dr. Jackie Dunbar-Jacob Reflects on Career of Impact, Path Forward for Nursing

Jackie Dunbar-Jacob, PhD, RN, FAAN always wanted to be a nurse.

The idea came at such a young age, her sister has said she can't remember Dr. Dunbar-Jacob having a list of potential occupations, as children often do. Dr. Dunbar-Jacob theorizes her passion for the field was likely sparked by: Having an appendectomy at a young age and memories of the care she received from nurses; memories of her primary care physician whose wife was a nurse; or her passion for books authored by Helen Wells about Cherry Ames, a fictional job-hopping, mystery-solving nurse cut from a similar cloth as Nancy Drew.

While working toward her bachelor's degree in nursing at Florida State University, Dr. Dunbar-Jacob was attracted to the psychiatric mental health field. This passion led her to University of California for her master's degree in science focusing on psychiatric nursing. She would go on to receive her PhD in counseling psychology from Stanford University.

As a doctoral student, she taught and worked in multicenter clinical trials on chronic disease focused on patient adherence to treatment. Those clinical trials and the Pitt faculty who served as principal investigators of the work, referred her to the University of Pittsburgh, where she began in 1984 as an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry, Department of Epidemiology, and Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing.

"It became very clear to me that the academic world was what I was interested in," Dr. Dunbar-Jacobs remembers.

She has had an exciting, rewarding, and impactful career at the University of Pittsburgh, serving 35 years as a faculty member, 21 of those as dean of the university's School of Nursing. She has worked as a staff nurse, unit manager, nursing director, and has taught nursing at both undergraduate and graduate levels.

She has served in many roles at the University of Pittsburgh, including: Chair of the Department of Health and Community Systems at the School of Nursing; director of Community PARTners Core at Pitt's Clinical and Translation Research Institute; and Director of the Center for Nursing Research at Pitt, to name a few. Most recently, she has also served as the Distinguished Service Professor of Nursing, an emeritus member of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, and an advisory professor to Fudan University in Shanghai, China. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Nursing, the American Psychological Association, the Society for Behavioral Medicine, the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research, and the American Heart Association.

"What I am most proud of accomplishing during my time as dean is the quality of the School of Nursing and its graduates. We have worked very hard to have high-quality programming and to have high-quality nurses entering the workforce from the University of Pittsburgh," Dr. Dunbar-Jacob said.

That commitment shows in the growth of the program, which currently boasts of 1,050, of which 770 are undergraduate students. The School of Nursing at Pitt is consistently ranked in the top 10 by U.S. News & World Report, and in the top 20 globally.

The pandemic brought with it several adaptations to the educational environment at the School of Nursing, including online education which has led to an openness to providing hybrid options moving forward. Additionally, the simulation techniques used during the pandemic to simulate real-world scenarios will likely be used to augment nursing education, but she is doubtful it will replace clinical experience.

She said these simulation practices are helpful in training students but also to keep the practicing nurse up to date.

"Through the pandemic, we've also learned how we can interact with each other without having to use gas and pollute the environment, which is a great tool," Dr. Dunbar-Jacob added.

With the Great Resignation of practitioners leaving the discipline of nursing, nurses are calling for systems to address issues of communication with nurses, respect for the profession (or lack thereof), and to increase the safety of those working in the field from both medical harm and violence in the workplace.

Passionate about the Great Resignation from sub-acute care, she added that once the door between schools of nursing and sub-acute care is open, there are incredible opportunities for students to learn, while also contributing back to the nursing home itself.

"It's going to take a lot of work with schools of nursing to incorporate nursing homes and the variety of opportunities for student learning that nursing homes provide. It's rare to see a school of nursing incorporate a nursing home into its educational practice. The most urgent and important thing we can do is to have clinical diversity and get exposure to the incredible opportunities there," Dr. Dunbar-Jacob said.

Sitting in her office, amid several boxes waiting to be packed up with memories, accomplishments, and lessons accumulated over the past two decades, she said her hope for the School of Nursing is that it sustains interest in the emphasis on the value of scientific research to contribute to the actions taken in practice and the quality of the students it educates and graduates into the workforce.

Reflecting on retirement, Dr. Dunbar-Jacob, a self-described "night chronotype," said she is looking forward to sleep according to her body's wishes and to put away her alarm clock. Beyond that, she is enthusiastic about being able to carry on with projects of import to her in service to several committees at the state and national level.

As a current member of the Health Careers Futures (HCF) Board, a past Jewish Healthcare Foundation (JHF) board member, and a friend of the foundation, Dr. Dunbar-Jacob has accepted an invitation to work with JHF and HCF's Revisiting the Teaching Nursing Home initiative and providing her expertise in this space as a consultant.

"What really excited me about the Jewish Healthcare Foundation is its ability and action to take on current pressing issues and do something meaningful about those issues. That is what gives me great joy in working with the Jewish Healthcare Foundation," Dr. Dunbar-Jacob said. 

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