Faculty Profile: Tonda Hughes

Tonda Hughes, Henrik H. Bendixen Professor of International Nursing (in Psychiatry) and Associate Dean of Global Health, spoke with us about her research and about being part of the inaugural LGBTQ+ cluster hire.


What influenced your decision to come to Columbia?

My primary interests and passions are in sexual minority women's health and in global health—a major reason that I was attracted to Columbia University School of Nursing is that I could have leadership roles in both.  Prior to coming to Columbia, I was the associate dean for global health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. And, although I was doing research related to sexual minority women’s health (part of my now 22-year longitudinal Chicago Health and Life Experiences of Women study), UIC is a state school. It just doesn't have the resources that Columbia has. While at UIC I had relatively few doctoral students or postdoctoral fellows working with me, especially few with interests in LGBTQ health.

Head shot of Tonda Hughes in front of a rainbow flag

I wasn't really looking to leave UIC, but I was being recruited by a number of other universities and institutions. I was at the American Academy of Nursing’s annual meeting, and Bobbie Berkowitz, the former dean at Columbia University School of Nursing (CUSON) and President of the Academy, approached me during a break and asked if I was “movable.” She said that she, and Drs. Anke Ehrhardt and Walter Bockting had written a proposal (as part of the diversity recruitment initiative) for a scholar in lesbian and bisexual health, and wanted to know if I might be interested. I let her know that I was open to hearing about the position.

I had been to Columbia a few years before that—to present Grand Rounds in the Department of Psychiatry. That’s when I first met Anke, Walter, and others in the Division of Gender, Sexuality and Health and the Program for the Study of LGBTQ Health. I was impressed by all that was going on related to sexual and gender minority health. I had one reservation: I had grown up in a tiny town in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, and although I’d lived in Chicago for a long time, the idea of living in New York City was not that appealing to me. However, Dean Berkowitz invited my partner and me to spend a week so that I could get a fuller impression and to see if NYC was someplace I thought I could live. That’s how it started.

In addition to wanting to grow expertise in LGBTQ health, CUSON has a wonderfully robust program in global health. I’d been working over the past five to ten years to merge my interests in sexual minority health and global health, and in joining Columbia, I saw a really wonderful opportunity to do that. So, as they say, the rest is history.

"I’d been working over the past five to ten years to merge my interests in sexual minority health and global health, and in joining Columbia, I saw a really wonderful opportunity to do that."

How was your adjustment to life here?

Moving is never easy and I had underestimated the extent to which I still needed to prove myself. I was hoping for a little bit more work-life balance, but that didn't happen. There are so many opportunities here. Throughout my whole career, I've been learning to say ‘no’ more, but there are so many great things to be involved in it’s hard not to say ‘yes’ to many of them.

What did being part of the inaugural LGBTQ+ cluster hire represent for you?

When the position (for senior scholar in lesbian and bisexual women’s health) was advertised, several people from across the country emailed me and said this has your name on it. I was proud to move to a university that was putting not just lip service but money into creating a more diverse campus, especially one that included LGBTQ in its definition of diversity. I have not yet been able to meet in person with all of the other LGBTQ+ recruits and am hoping that there will be more opportunities to do that. The Queer Disruptions events have been fantastic; I helped organize the event several years ago and hosted an international panel of speakers whose research expertise is in sexual minority women’s health.  Just knowing that I'm in a place where there is this much support makes a huge difference.

You were interviewed for the LGBTQ+ Guide; what are your thoughts about the creation of the guide and the impact that it has had so far?

I have to say that I don't think it's had as big of an impact as it could have. It’s a booklet that can easily end up under a stack of papers on your desk or bookshelf. I forwarded the link to the guide to the fellows in our Center for Sexual and Gender Minority Health Research and to others, but I’m not sure the uptake has been. It could be useful to have an open forum and more LGBTQ-related activities when the guide is promoted. It would also be great if the guide could be used for student and faculty orientations. If I were a student looking at potential schools, or being oriented as a new student at Columbia, I think knowing about the guide and Columbia’s support of LGBTQ students and faculty would be really important to me. I hear from various places on campus that students believe faculty need LGBTQ+ competency training, so including the guide in faculty orientations would also be great!

I also think it would be really good for us (the LGBTQ faculty recruits) to have more opportunities for social interaction. If we're going to be leaders for other LGBTQ+ faculty on campus, it would be great to be more connected. The panel presentations for graduate students with LGBTQ faculty presenters are great, but they are not enough; we need a bigger presence so that people know how to find us, and each other.

Can you speak a bit more about the goals of your Center, and what you have been able to accomplish so far?

Establishing a research center focused on sexual and gender minority health has been a long-term goal of mine. The Center for Sexuality and Gender Minority Health Research is housed in the School of Nursing; I direct the Center and Walter Bockting is a co-director. He and I have joint appointments in Nursing and Psychiatry so we collaborate quite a lot. The Center currently includes eight faculty and seven predoctoral and postdoctoral fellows.

The overarching goal of the Center is to improve the health and well-being of SGM people and their families. One important way to do this is changing how healthcare providers care for SGM people.

Nursing, in particular, has lagged behind many other healthcare professions in this regard. In addition to hosting the first National Nursing Summit on LGBTQ Health and several workgroups focused on education, research and practice (see recent publication describing the Summit and some of its outcomes), we just launched a pilot research program and will fund 2-3 projects (up to $20,000) that show promise of having positive impact on LGBTQ health and that provide preliminary data that can be used to support the development of applications for larger external research funding.

"[LGBTQ+ faculty] need a bigger presence so that people know how to find us, and each other."

Another goal of the Center is to train new investigators and established faculty to conduct LGBTQ-relevant research. Toward that goal, we hope to start a summer boot camp next year, which would train both new investigators who want to learn how to do research related to SGM health as well as established investigators who want to expand their research to include SGM health. My vision is that we have more nurse researchers, say, a nurse whose program of research focuses on diabetes, who add questions related to sexual and gender identity so that we can better understand similarities and differences in the experiences of LGBTQ people and their cisgender, heterosexual counterparts. Faculty in our Center can help established researchers understand how to best incorporate relevant questions. We also want to help new researchers who want to develop research careers focused on SGM health to gain the knowledge and skills that can help move the field forward.

We want to expand the workforce of people doing SGM research. Related to this, we (Walter Bockting, Yaakov Stern and I) submitted an institutional training grant (T32) application to the National Institutes of Health that would support training for predoctoral and postdoctoral researchers who are interested in SGM health and aging. We received an excellent score on the first submission but were ultimately not funded; we recently resubmitted the application and are hopeful that it will be funded this time around.

What are you looking forward to, either personally or professionally?

Launching a center on SGM health research was a goal of mine, and I really want to see it grow and flourish. With COVID receding (hopefully), we can bring in more speakers and do more training. I mentor predoctoral, postdoctoral, and junior faculty members and I get a great deal of satisfaction from watching them advance in their programs and careers. I consider it a great honor to be part of growing the next generation of SGM researchers.

Also, I’d love to do more research abroad, particularly research related to SGM health. I’ve worked extensively with researchers in Australia and have done a bit with researchers in Chile, England, and Rwanda. I applied last year to be a Fulbright Global Scholar; I was a semi-finalist, but ultimately was not selected. The project I hope to do focuses on SGM-related content in nursing and medical school curricula in Australia and the Netherlands. Although the Netherlands is a world leader in terms of supportive laws and policies related to SGM people, they still have poorer health than their cisgender, heterosexual counterparts. This suggests that although supportive policies are important, they alone are not sufficient to eliminate SGM-related health disparities.  My hunch is that SGM people’s poorer health has to do with poorer-quality healthcare.  I plan to reapply this year because I believe what I learn from this research could help inform curricular revision in Australia and the Netherlands and could be translated to other cultures and countries. 

What could be done at Columbia to improve the experience of LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and staff?

At my prior institution, we had a lot of Safe Space training. Although it's hard because it's one more thing that takes time out of people's already busy schedules, it is important. The University is doing a good deal of really important anti-racism work and I believe that we need similar kinds of programs and activities about SGM people to help students, faculty and staff understand the underlying causes sexual- and gender-related health disparities. 

Is there anything else that you’d like to mention?

Before coming to Columbia things like the national Nursing LGBTQ Health Summit and the Center for Sexual and Gender Minority Health Research felt a bit like pipe dreams. Being able to accomplish these things, and having the opportunity to work with amazing students and colleagues who are interested in SGM health, has made my experience at Columbia really spectacular.


To learn more about Dr. Hughes' research, please visit her faculty website or email her directy.

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