PhD grad ready to make an even bigger impact

Kenja Hassan poses in a cream dress. She's wearing orange rimmed eye glasses

Kenja Hassan is graduating with a PhD in nursing and healthcare innovation from ASU's Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation.
Photo by Claudia Johnstone


Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2021 graduates.

A presentation nearly a decade ago on the health disparities experienced by African American women in Arizona made a strong impression on Kenja Hassan, assistant vice president of Arizona State University’s Office of Government and Community Engagement. 

“I was shaken to learn that nationwide, Black women experience worse health outcomes across the life span and higher rates of ailments ranging from maternal mortality to Alzheimer’s Disease. Also at that time, I saw that HIV/AIDS, a disease I thought we had conquered in the 1990s, was still a leading cause of death for Black women,” Hassan said.

After this was brought to her attention, she wanted to better understand how health disparities impact minorities in the U.S. and, just as important, what can be done about them.

It was around that same time that she found out about ASU’s Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation’s Nursing and Healthcare Innovation PhD program from a co-worker.

She decided to apply and knew exactly what she was going to focus her research on: “I chose to study HIV because the social stigma linked to the virus can complicate its treatment.”

Over the last seven years, Hassan has been working her demanding day job while pursuing her PhD, which is the equivalent of having two full-time jobs. The main reason she was able to finish her dissertation this year was because of the coronavirus-forced cancellations of events and in-person gatherings.

“I’m not convinced it would have happened without the requirement to be at home and be in one place, which gave me the time and the excuse to write the dissertation,” she said.

Her advisers and classmates also played an integral role in getting her to the finish line. Hassan said adviser David Coon “invested a lot of time in me to make sure that I was doing things the right way.”

Next up for Hassan is sharing what she has found through her research with local providers in a more expanded fashion. The goal is to get them to review what works for patients living with HIV and where they might be able to make some changes in their approach to keep more patients in care.

But first, she’ll take a beat to enjoy commencement this month. Below, Hassan reflects on her experience at ASU in general, her time as a doctoral student specifically and shares what problem she’d tackle with $40 million.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

Answer: ASU constantly expands my perspective because the university provides open opportunities to learn something new every day. Recently, on ASU Thought Huddle, I learned how slavery’s economic benefit to the U.S. economy extends to the present day and how humanity’s evolving understanding of plagues and contagions influence our response to COVID-19. 

Thanks to the Department of English, I heard legendary primatologist Jane Goodall explain the power of storytelling. She described a visit to a national research facility during which a caged chimpanzee wiped her tears away. She then used that story to convince those researchers to end experimentation on chimpanzees.

I’ve read that scientists at ASU’s Biodesign Institute have found promising evidence that microorganisms in our gut influence mental health conditions and present new ways for treating autism. Now, I had known that food changes your mood, but this research takes it to a whole new level. The discoveries are constant — it’s up to us to be open and transformed by them.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I have had multiple faculty reinforce the most important lesson: Be thorough. My earlier degree at ASU was in religious studies. I had masterful teachers there and in Edson College. Faculty in both programs, especially my advisers Kenneth Morrison and David Coon, taught me valuable lessons about asking more questions of the information I gathered, documenting my processes carefully, writing clearly so my reader understood my findings and making sure I supported my argument. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: I advise students to avoid taking feedback personally. This is especially important for writing. If a grader gives you lots of feedback on your writing, it’s an opportunity to learn how to clarify your message. Feedback does not mean that something is wrong with your point of view. Since clear communication is important for both professional and personal life, I tell students to use college as a time to practice making mistakes and getting better.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would use the money to advocate for shifting our national approach to health care delivery from intervention to prevention, especially in the case of poor and underserved populations. I would focus on implementing delivery systems that make it easier for people of limited means to get care before small issues become large, costly crises. A viable starting point is increasing the availability of telemedicine and virtual appointments to help people without transportation or ample sick leave to make appointments they might otherwise miss.  

Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to resist helping address the global reduction in biodiversity. I would have to set some money aside to purchase land for wildlife habitat preservation. Human health and well-being are intertwined with the rest of our planet, including the animals we don’t yet know much about. Fighting for human health means little if our planet isn’t also healthy.

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