Susan Zahner, DrPH, RN, FAAN, associate dean for faculty affairs, professor, and Vilas Distinguished Achievement professor at the UW–Madison School of Nursing, has been recognized by the Wisconsin Public Health Association (WPHA) as the 2023 Carol Graham Lifetime Achievement award winner.
The award, bestowed annually to a WPHA member, recognizes individuals with special career-spanning contributions through their leadership, advocacy, or service to public health in Wisconsin. The award is given to an individual in recognition of their exemplary, sustained service to public health including contributions at the community, state, or national level, with special attention paid to those who have made an impact on public health in Wisconsin.
Dr. Zahner has achieved just that, showing deep dedication to public health throughout her career as a public health nurse, academician, and researcher. She has contributed significantly to each of these areas, but a point of distinction is the extent to which she has supported public health services, systems, and infrastructure by bridging practice, research, academic programs, as well as workforce development and training.
“This is a very humbling and meaningful award to me,” said Zahner upon accepting the award at the Annual Public Health Conference on May 24. “I knew Carol Graham. I started my career in Minnesota, but moved to Wisconsin early on. When I moved to Wisconsin, I met Carol and a whole cohort of amazing public health nurses. Carol, in particular, was a force. You couldn’t be around her without seeing the forcefield around her. She was a remarkable person, and I feel very gratified to have known her and to consider her a mentor in my early career in public health in Wisconsin. I’m very pleased to receive this award with her name on it.”
This is not the first award Zahner has received from the WPHA. In 1997, she was awarded the Presidential Citation, which recognizes a sustained outstanding contribution or recent significant contribution to WPHA. In 2006, she received the Excellence in Public Health Research Award, which acknowledges outstanding scientific investigations that are based on sound public health science, and have contributed to, or has the potential to contribute to, a change in public health practice, policy, science, or technology.
Throughout her career in public health, Dr. Zahner’s work coordinating and leveraging resources from across sectors has allowed her to expertly address gaps and create coordinated, collaborative alignment. In times of public health need, Dr. Zahner is skilled at conceiving and proposing feasible solutions and then navigating complex channels to gain the support necessary to bring them to fruition. Her legacy in this regard includes her time as the Public Health Nursing Supervisor and the Director of Public Health Nursing for Public Health Madison & Dane County. There, among other accomplishments to improve population health, she began the Dane County Immunization Coalition, which continues today.
Most recently, Dr. Zahner used her expertise and leadership to design and implement a statewide Covid-19 vaccine education and mobilization initiative as vaccines were first becoming available. Known as Badger Nurses Collaborating on Covid-19 Vaccine Education and Delivery (BN-CoVED), the initiative involved five University of Wisconsin (UW) System schools of nursing: UW–Madison, Green Bay, Oshkosh, Eau Claire, and Stevens Point. Through the BN-CoVED initiative, students and faculty supported 60 different campus, health care, community, and public health organizations from February through June of 2021. Dr. Zahner also led the submission of funding proposals that generated support for BN-CoVED through the Wisconsin Partnership Program.
When Dr. Zahner transitioned from her work in local public health practice to academia in 1997, she aspired to support public health through research. She has achieved that goal through researching ways to improve the performance of local public health systems to achieve population health improvement within communities. One study examined interorganizational collaborative strategies in local public health systems and between primary care and public health organizations. While pursuing a Doctor of Public Health degree and since becoming a faculty member at the School of Nursing, she has focused on public health systems and services research (PHSSR). That dedicated education and focus on PHSSR opened the door to Dr. Zahner’s enduring contributions to public health systems and networks.
In 2009, to support collaboration between public health practitioners and researchers on PHSSR projects, Dr. Zahner worked with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, local health departments, Wisconsin Association of Local Health Departments and Boards, and the Wisconsin Public Health Association to assist in the Wisconsin Department of Health Services’ application for a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Public Health Practice-based Research Networks Program grant.
After successfully securing funding from RWJF, the Wisconsin Public Health Practice-based Research Network (PH PBRN)—now known as the Wisconsin Public Health Research Network (WPHRN)—became one of 12 public health practice-based research networks funded across the nation by RWJF. Today, it is one of only two of the original PH PBRNs still in existence. It is thriving; membership has grown to almost 300 members from around Wisconsin, including researchers, students, and public health practitioners at local, tribal, and state health departments.
In 2012, Dr. Zahner identified and secured funding through the UW–Madison’s Institute for Clinical and Translational Research that continues today. Through WPHRN, numerous research projects have been supported and research findings have been disseminated to support Wisconsin’s public health departments and workforce as she has synthesized public health and research for the best possible outcomes.
Dr. Zahner led another significant statewide collaborative endeavor, known as the Linking Education and Practice in Public Health Nursing (LEAP) project. The LEAP project was aimed at improving public health practice and strengthening public health systems. It was originally funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) in 2006, with a competitive renewal for continued funding through 2012.
As a dedicated mentor of emerging researchers and students Dr. Zahner uses her leadership and relationships in public health networks to immerse future public health professionals in as many learning experiences as possible. She invites undergraduate and graduate students to participate in research team meetings and projects related to translating research to practice in public health. While these are not typically a part of curricula, they are invaluable to the preparation of workforce-ready public health professionals.
In 2013, Dr. Zahner started a Translating Evidence to Practice in Public Health (TEP-PH) internship and secured UW–Madison School of Nursing donor funding to do so. Interns from TEP-PH support public health-relevant research projects, translate and disseminate evidence generated from research projects to local, tribal, and state public health practice. Since starting the program, Dr. Zahner has provided direct mentorship to 13 graduate students in public health nursing and other graduate programs.
That same year, she was inducted into the American Academy of Nursing in 2013 and remains an active member of the Academy’s expert panel on environmental and public health. Dr. Zahner’s awareness of the challenges faced by Wisconsin’s local and state health departments have informed her innovative initiatives throughout her career. She has focused her expertise on strengthening public health organizations and departments through the preparation of new public health professionals. In 2019, Dr. Zahner, with colleagues, undertook an adaptation of the Southeastern Wisconsin Public Health Nurse (SEWPHN) Residency Program, originally developed in 2016 by a group of public health nurses. The intent was to ensure that the residency program was relevant for public health professionals from non-nursing educational backgrounds, and to those in rural and urban settings in Wisconsin.
The adaptation was guided by community advisory teams that included local and state public health staff. Unfortunately, planned implementation of the adapted program, which was designed using in-person workshops, was canceled due to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Dr. Zahner’s team responded to this by redesigning the program, developing it for fully online delivery. This redesigned model became the New to Public Health (N2PH) Residency Program, an innovative, first of its kind online program designed to build confidence and competence for early career professionals working in governmental public health practice. It includes 77 continuing education credits, community of practice opportunity, mentorship, and applied evidence-based learning.
The first N2PH cohort was launched in September 2021, with 24 members from Wisconsin and Virginia. Since then, over 10 cohorts have completed or are enrolled in the program, totaling 202 residents from 18 states. Further lending to the reach and impact, partnerships to establish state-based cohorts have been forged with the states of Alaska, New Jersey, and New Mexico.
Juliana Manske, MSN, RN, OCN, who works closely with Dr. Zahner on the N2PH Residency Program says, “It never ceases to amaze me how far Susan’s reach has been over her career. We have worked with over 70 content experts across the United States. Many of them have been impacted by Susan and her work in the field of public health. They trust me and the N2PH Residency Program because Susan is involved.”
BN-CoVED, WPHRN, LEAP, and the N2PH program are exemplars of her leadership in productive academic and practice collaborations that have measurable positive outcomes. The hallmarks of these and all projects led by Dr. Zahner include organization; financing; delivery of public health services within communities; attention to sustainability; and evaluation of impact. This level of excellence drives her renowned reputation for community health improvement and partnership development. In addition, Dr. Zahner incorporates education in all circumstances where it is possible to include public health students. Such educational opportunities are always characterized by high-value experiential learning and career-changing mentorship.
The reach and impact on public health practice, systems, services, and research that Dr. Zahner has had through the education and mentorship that she has prioritized throughout her career has also been invaluable. Manske states, “Susan has been an incredible role model and mentor to so many, including myself. When I think about the impact I want to make on the field of nursing and public health over my career, Susan is who inspires me and motivates me.” She adds, “I was at the Association of Community Health Nursing Educators conference last summer and was approached by three or four separate people that I did not previously know. They asked me to relay greetings to Susan. They shared their story of how Susan made an impact on their life. It is an honor just to know Susan! She is the most deserving person for this award because she truly is an extraordinary legacy to public health.”
While the focus of Dr. Zahner’s contributions to public health are at the core of her Lifetime Achievement award, she has earned the same level of respect from her peers and colleagues in academia. A member of the UW–Madison School of Nursing faculty since 2000, her years spent in academia have been a progression and extension of her commitment to improving the health of populations by strengthening public health practice, systems, and services.
Dr. Zahner’s 23-year career in the School of Nursing has led to the same level of contributions to the research, teaching, and service mission of UW–Madison, and has embodied the ideals how the state’s flagship university should provide benefit to all members of the state. Her commitment to public health as a faculty member is representative of the highest promise of progress through partnership.
Dr. Zahner is grateful for the teams of public health professionals that have been with her along the way. “No one does public health alone, it’s a team sport,” she says. “There are many people that I’d like to thank on all of the teams that I have worked on over the years in WPHA, at the UW–Madison School of Nursing, in what used to be called the Madison Department of Public Health – now Public Health Madison/Dane County. There’s just so many partners, so many really talented public health professionals that I have had an opportunity to work with, and I thank you all for being a part of my career in public health.”
About the Wisconsin Public Health Association
Founded in 1948, the Wisconsin Public Health Association, Inc. (WPHA) is an affiliate of the American Public Health Association (APHA). Its mission is to build collective action to address root causes and advance public health policy and practice through policy and partnership. Its vision is to help create a healthier, safer, more equitable Wisconsin. The organization’s vision is to create a healthier, safer, and more equitable Wisconsin. The annual awards they bestow are a unique opportunity and a very important means that WPHA has for recognizing those who have made significant contributions to public health in Wisconsin over the last year and beyond.
Nominations were received and reviewed by representatives of the WPHA Awards Committee and endorsed by the WPHA Board of Directors. These awardees have demonstrated their dedication to public health through exemplary achievement in their award category.
The 2023 Award winners were recognized in conjunction with the Annual Public Health Conference, held both virtually and in person at the Madison Marriott West on May 24, 2023.
For more information about WPHA’s awards and criteria, as well as previous award recipients, visit the WPHA Awards website.