November 19, 2020 | Erin Bluvas, firstname.lastname@example.org
Following in the footsteps of Rural and Minority Health Research Center core faculty Jan Eberth (director), Elizabeth Crouch (deputy director), Peiyin Hung and Melinda Merrell, Whitney Zahnd will join the Rural Health Fellows Program. As a member of the 2021 cohort, Zahnd will embark on a one-year, intensive training program for the future leaders of rural America.
The program, which is offered by the National Rural Health Association, is designed to educate, develop and inspire a network of rural health leaders to serve in key positions within the organization, advocacy groups and legislative bodies. Zahnd and the other 15 fellows in her cohort were selected from applicants across the country and will participate in leadership/advocacy training and a mentorship program.
Zahnd grew up on a farm just outside an urban area in central Illinois. Her introduction to rural health began during her master’s program in community health/epidemiology at the University of Illinois when one of her professors talked about her experiences working at a rural hospital.
“Even though the farm I grew upon was not in a particularly rural area, there were aspects of 'rural' that resonated with me and my life experiences,” Zahnd says.
With her interest piqued, she landed a job supporting rural health research at Southern Illinois University’s School of Medicine after graduation. Over the next few years, Zahnd worked as a researcher on multiple projects, including one where she led the development of a rural cancer report for Illinois.
She had found her passion and returned to her alma mater to earn a Ph.D. in Community Health (emphasis in epidemiology) while continuing her gain relevant work experience at the medical school. After her 2018 graduation, Zahnd joined the Arnold School’s Rural and Minority Health Research Center as a postdoctoral fellow and then stayed on as a research assistant professor.
“I had always been impressed by the Center’s focus on the intersection of both rural and racial disparities in health, and the Arnold School had a strong reputation as a School of Public Health and for cancer disparities research,” says Zahnd. She remembers citing the work of Janice Probst, Distinguished Professor Emerita of Health Services Policy and Management and director of the Rural and Minority Research Center from 2003 to 2018, during her years as a researcher at Southern Illinois University and then Eberth’s (director since 2018) work on cancer disparities and GIS during her dissertation research.
“Simply put, one of the reasons I came to the Rural and Minority Health Research Center was for the opportunity to learn from and work alongside some of my research heroines,” Zahnd says. “I feel very fortunate to work with them and other Center colleagues, like Drs. Crouch, Hung, and Merrell, and our brilliant student researchers every day.”
Zahnd will expand her collaborations and networking opportunities even further with the Rural Health Fellows Program. She’s looking forward to getting more involved in the National Rural Health Association, learning skills on how to more effectively advocate for policies that improve health in rural communities throughout the country, and learn from other fellows who work more directly with the community and healthcare systems in rural areas.