Debra Haire-Joshu is named Joyce Wood Professor

Debra Haire-Joshu, PhD, an internationally renowned researcher in obesity and diabetes prevention, has been installed as the first Joyce Wood Professor. This also marks Washington University in St. Louis’ first endowed professorship in public health.

The professorship was established with a gift of $2 million from philanthropist, WUSTL trustee and alumna Joyce Wood (AB ’76, MBA ’77), whose deep concern for human health made the professorship — and the university’s Institute for Public Health — a natural fit.

According to Wood, it was Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton who first suggested Haire-Joshu as the selected candidate for the endowed chair, to which she responded:

“I could not have designed someone whose work is focused on areas that have more personal importance and who so aptly represents the combination of the strengths of the Brown School and the School of Medicine in the Institute of Public Health.”

“As a successful businesswoman, dedicated trustee and engaged alumna with a long history of generosity in both time and talent to this institution, Joyce Wood is an exemplar of the kind of person who continues to make this university great,” Wrighton said. “We are very grateful for this significant gift, which supports Professor Haire-Joshu’s research and in turn provides real-life solutions for some of society’s most pressing public health problems.”

Announcing the professorship to the Brown School community, Edward F. Lawlor, PhD, dean of the Brown School, founding director of the Institute for Public Health, and the William E. Gordon Distinguished Professor of Social Work, noted Haire-Joshu’s important role at the school and university:

“Debra is a remarkable faculty member — an internationally recognized scholar of obesity prevention, a great teacher, our school’s associate dean for research, and a major force in prevention policy in the United States. She is generous with her time and is a giving colleague. We could not have a better role model in public health for the inaugural holder of the Joyce Wood Professorship.”

Translating research results into national health-care policy has been an integral part of Haire-Joshu’s career. Many national organizations use her evidence-based obesity prevention approaches to tackle diabetes in high-risk populations, and her development of a Missouri database for evaluating obesity-related policies is being adopted by other states. Also, her research was used by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to help inform policy priorities for first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign.

Her work to reduce obesity and prevent diabetes, particularly in underserved youth populations, is supported by a broad array of public and private organizations, including the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), both at the National Institutes of Health; the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and the Missouri Foundation for Health.

A professor of public health holding joint appointments in the Brown School and the School of Medicine, Haire-Joshu also directs WUSTL’s Center for Obesity Prevention and Policy Research as well as its Center for Diabetes Translation Research. The latter was established in 2011 through a five-year, $3 million grant from the NIDDK to develop improvements in the prevention and treatment of Type 2 diabetes in high-risk populations, including American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Haire-Joshu also is testing interventions to prevent excessive weight gain among pregnant and postpartum women and to prevent diabetes in overweight mothers and children.

Another medically underserved group in this country is the rural population, a particular concern for Wood, a resident of Bonne Terre, a small town in the heart of Missouri’s Lead Belt, where she has run her accounting firm, J. Wood & Associates, since 1984. Having served as a board member of Parkland Health Center in nearby Farmington, Wood is keenly aware of the increasing challenge for rural communities to access health care. Her initial gift to the Brown School supported a practicum for using telecommunications methods to provide clinical health care in rural areas.

Wood also has served as a board member of Missouri Baptist Hospital in St. Louis, and she recently was appointed to the BJC HealthCare board of directors.

A university trustee, her leadership with WUSTL also includes membership in the national councils for the School of Medicine and the Institute for Public Health.

This is the second professorship Wood has supported; the first is the Joyce and Howard Wood Distinguished Professorship in Business, established in 2004 with her former husband. They also created the Wood Leadership Fellows and Scholars Program in the Olin School, with major commitments in 1998 and 2009 totaling $10.6 million. Initially established to help attract the best and brightest MBA students, the program later was expanded to offer substantial need-based scholarships to outstanding undergraduate students pursuing business degrees. Also in 2009, the couple made a $2 million gift to the medical school to establish the Howard and Joyce Wood Simulation Center in the Farrell Learning and Teaching Center.

Haire-Joshu earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing in 1975 and her master’s degree in health education in 1978, both from Southern Illinois University. She then received her master’s degree in medical-surgical nursing in 1982 and her doctoral degree in educational psychology in 1988, both from Saint Louis University (SLU).

After working at Barnes and Jewish hospitals, with teaching affiliations at Washington University’s School of Medicine, she joined the School of Medicine in 1984 as director of health-related research and educational programs and became an associate professor of medicine. In 1998, she joined SLU’s School of Public Health, but she returned to WUSTL in 2008.

Haire-Joshu is widely published in scholarly journals and has served as reviewer for numerous professional publications. The Society of Behavioral Medicine has recognized her contributions with two Distinguished Service Awards and a Distinguished Fellow Award. She also is a member of the American Public Health Association and the American Diabetes Association.