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A conversation with Barbara Polivka

The University of Kansas School of Nursing’s new dean of research talks about her vision for scientific discovery at the school

Barbara J. Polivka, Ph.D., RN, FAAN
Barbara J. Polivka, Ph.D., RN, FAAN

The University of Kansas School of Nursing’s new associate dean for research. Barbara J. Polivka, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, joined the school in February 2019. Polivka came to KU from the University of Louisville School of Nursing, where she had been professor and the Shirley B. Powers Endowed Chair in Nursing Research since 2012. Before that, she had been on the faculty of The Ohio State University College of Nursing since 1999. Polivka was offered the associate dean for research position after a national search following the retirement of her predecessor, Marjorie Bott, Ph.D., RN., in 2018.

After earning her bachelor's degree in nursing from the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing and Health in 1977, Polivka spent the first decade of her career as a practicing nurse. She began her academic career after earning her master of science in nursing degree from the University of Cincinnati in 1983. She earned a doctorate in nursing from The Ohio State University College of Nursing in 1990.

Polivka has published widely about environmental health, particularly in the area of how people's health may be affected by hazards in their homes, such as lead paint and chemicals found in many household products. She is currently completing a study, funded by the National Institute of Aging, on how certain environmental triggers affect older adults with asthma.

KU Nursing recently sat down with Polivka to discuss her interest in environmental health, her plans for promoting more interprofessional research at KU Medical Center and what she does in her down time.

KU Nursing: Tell us a little about yourself ‒ where you grew up and how you became interested in the field of nursing?

Polivka: My parents both immigrated to the United States from Ukraine. Our family grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. I became interested in nursing when I was in high school. It was the Vietnam era, and one day I saw photo of nurse caring for a wounded soldier on the battlefield. I thought right then and there, that is what I want to do. After high school, I enrolled in the nursing program at the University of Cincinnati.

KU Nursing: Why were you interested in coming to the KU School of Nursing?

Polivka: I had wanted to be an associate dean of research for some time. I was already acquainted with Marge Bott from professional nursing organizations, so I was familiar with the great reputation of the KU School of Nursing. I was also very impressed with the scholarship, research and interprofessional drive at the KU Medical Center as a whole. And when I interviewed for the position, the dedication and passion of Dr. Maliski and the faculty was clear.

KU Nursing: You have said that working with faculty, as well as students and post-doctoral students, to help them achieve their research goals is a big priority for you.

Polivka: In my previous position at Louisville, much of my work centered around mentoring faculty, students and clinicians. I absolutely love it. I thought I could do that even better in an administrative position like this one at KU.

KU Nursing: You have indicated that you are interested in specifically promoting interprofessional research at KU Medical Center. How can that happen?

Polivka: I should start by saying that there is already a good deal of interprofessional research going on at KU Medical Center. I’m looking forward to working with the medical center’s vice chancellor for research, Richard Barohn, and others on promoting more support for interprofessional research. And I believe interprofessional research can be much broader than just health care. In my research into home health hazards, for example, I have worked with engineers and many other professions to help evaluate environmental factors. When you get teams that are open to collaboration, research can be a lot broader ‒ and fun!

KU Nursing: You mentioned your primary research area is in environmental health. How did you get interested in that?

Polivka: It really started with my doctoral dissertation. My mentor was an epidemiologist, and her area of research was exploring prenatal environmental exposures and risks for development of cerebral palsy in infants. My primary research interest is exploring how environmental factors in the home can affect those with asthma, particularly older adults with asthma. I think a lot of people would be surprised to know that many of the products used in their homes can be health hazards ‒ things like air fresheners, scented candles, dryer sheets and many cleaning products. It’s really the buildup of these chemical exposures that we are looking at. Unfortunately, it is unclear how these accumulated exposures can impact health.

KU Nursing: What do you like to do in your off time?

Polivka: I have a passion for gardening, so I always seem to be elbow-deep in dirt at home. I also enjoy reading murder mysteries. I love to walk in Kansas City’s beautiful parks and neighborhoods. And I also have two grandkids who I love spending time with.

KU School of Nursing

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