Scholar Story: Jen’nea Sumo, PhD

I’ve always been a person of purpose, with a desire to see others reach their full potential. If I see an issue, I ask, ‘How can we advocate for that population?’

From a young age, Jen’nea Sumo was encouraged by her family to challenge herself academically. Her grandfather, who had a PhD in Education and Masters in Social Work, enrolled her in community college classes during high school, encouraging her to embrace deeper academic study. At 18 years old, Jen’nea entered Langston University with an associate’s degree already in hand and began studying biology and psychology.

In her senior year, Jen’nea learned she was pregnant, which was a challenge to her family relationships at the time. Jen’nea’s grandfather was a very influential father figure to her and very vocal in expressing his concerns about her being a young parent. Her grandfather was also diabetic, which brought Jen’nea’s attention to the potential impact that caring for a young parent can have on grandparents’ health.

Finishing her psychology degree with a new baby inspired Jen’nea to seek new paths of academic study, pursuing a master’s degree and then a PhD in nursing. Her experience being a young mother ultimately served as the basis of her future research on the behavior and health needs of grandparent caregivers who are raising parenting adolescent children.

“Having a child in college, I thought to myself, how do families do this?” Jen’nea explains. “While working on my dissertation, I saw that there wasn’t a lot of research or support for grandparent caregivers who care for their parenting adolescent children. My desire is to support the caregivers, so they can be well-equipped to provide care for these young parents.”

Jen’nea has made the grandparent caregiver population a focus of her research. As an assistant professor at Rush University, Jen’nea investigates multi-generational views of family health and wellbeing by developing interventions and community support.

“I never in my wildest dreams expected to be in a position where I would be able to study and grow and build knowledge to help people,” Jen’nea says. “I’ve always been a person of purpose, with a desire to see others reach their full potential. If I see an issue, I ask, ‘How can we advocate for that population?’”

While Jen’nea’s primary focus is grandparent caregivers, she is also interested in how all family members respond to parenting. For the past four years, Jen’nea has been the co-project director of an NIH-funded study designed to test two fatherhood interventions with  African American fathers who do not live with their child on a full time basis (Grant # NR-011182-05-). Mothers were recruited as data informants for the fatherhood study and during data collection they repeatedly asked: “what about the Moms?” Their question led to the expansion of the study to include learning about the perspectives of mothers who co-parent with non-residential fathers.

“This all ties into family dynamics, and I want parents to be well, so their children and even grandchildren can be well,” Jen’nea says. “We can’t do anything in a vacuum. In nursing, we have our hands in a little bit of everything. We work to impact so many different issues to provide the best care we can. I work to understand behavior and the impact of social determinants of health because they have the potential to influence mental and physical health outcomes.”

For her New Connections research, she conducted a secondary analysis on the impact of social determinants of health and health behaviors on grandparent caregivers’ health.  In this study, the impact of social determinants of health and health behaviors did not differ between caregiving grandmothers and a comparison group of women of similar age without grandchildren living in the home.

The findings from this study suggest that the women could benefit from interventions that address financial and parental stress and physical activity taking into account the physical surroundings of their neighborhood and their need for social support. Ability to pay bills was the only social determinant of health found to be associated with both mental and physical health, and physical activity was the only health behavior found to be associated with physical health. Therefore, pragmatic interventions should be created that address and integrate social determinant of health factors related to financial stress and physical activity for both groups of women. Yet, Jen’nea notes, interventionists should take into consideration the unique needs of caregiving grandmothers.

Jen’nea is now working on creating focus groups to further understand the physical and mental health of these grandparents. The next step is to obtain insight from grandparent caregivers to understand what interventions components are required to meet their specific needs.

On top of her research, Jen’nea is heavily involved in Rush’s nursing college as co-chair of its diversity and inclusion committee. “One thing about having a faculty position is that you have many other responsibilities outside of research,” she says. “New Connections offering grants like this is helpful to buy back time for your research.”

The grant has also exposed Jen’nea to a wealth of resources from mentors and relationships with colleagues to building research skills and professional development. These skills and supports have provided her with the foundation to think big about her research and professional goals, she says.

“I have a vision of positively impacting the world,” Jen’nea explains. “I dream big, I want to help everybody. I have a passion for vulnerable populations—I want to help them get the resources they need to thrive. I also want to encourage those interested in supporting vulnerable populations to consider academia and nursing as a career because there are a lot of opportunities to positively affect communities through nursing.”