Alumna Spotlight: Jennifer Sonney Aims to Improve Asthma Care for Kids

April 22, 2019

Jennifer Sonney, PhD, ARNP, PPCNP-BC, earned her PhD from the University of Arizona College of Nursing in 2015. Prior to that, she earned her BSN and MSN at the University of Washington, where she is currently an assistant professor at the School of Nursing’s Department of Family and Child Nursing. She recently won $10,000 when she was the champion at UW’s annual Nursing Shark Tank, a game-show-styled competition where nurse researchers try to convince audience members to give them the funding necessary to turn their projects into reality. Dr. Sonney’s project, Improving Asthma Care Together (IMPACT), an app that provides tools for kids to recognize and report asthma symptoms, and allows parents to monitor those symptoms. 

What led you to pursue a career in nursing?

I decided I wanted to be a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner when I was 16, after meeting and job shadowing a Neonatal NP.  What appealed to me was the connectedness with families, especially kids, the opportunity to promote health, and to have autonomy in the role.  It was a long road, first the BSN program, working at Seattle Children’s Hospital as an RN, then later the Master in Nursing program to become a PNP.  As a PNP, I worked in community-based pediatric care settings, primarily with low-income, disadvantaged youth and their families.  I am especially proud of developing, implementing and managing a pediatric asthma clinic that was desperately needed and effective.

“Central to this idea is that asthma management is shared between parent and child, and we use technology to provide the opportunity for kids to recognize and report asthma symptoms, and parents to monitor those symptoms.  We call the project IMPACT, Improving Asthma Care Together." ~ Jennifer Sonney, PhD, ARNP, PPCNP-BC, University of Washington School of Nursing

During my time working as a PNP, I often precepted NP students and gave occasional guest lectures.  I have always loved teaching, and when the opportunity arose to join the PNP faculty team at the University of Washington, I jumped! While I loved working as a PNP, I came alive in academia.  I am energized by the environment, engagement with students, and being on the cutting edge of research, practice and leading the nursing profession.  That is when I knew I wanted to continue on to pursue my PhD and commit to a career in academia.

Why did you choose the UA Nursing PhD program?

I chose the UA program for a variety of reasons, though the most important was that it offered me the flexibility that I needed.  I was not in a position to be able to move to attend a traditional program.  I was delighted to learn about the UA program’s excellent reputation and distance format.  While pursuing my dreams of becoming a nurse scientist, I was able to I maintain my faculty role and still be mom to my young twins.  It was not easy, but it was worth it! 

What was your experience like in the program?

I honestly cannot imagine a better experience.  I found the UA faculty to be engaged, passionate and dedicated to my success.  I had my doubts about a distance program, but the students and faculty made it work.  To be successful, I think students need to be self-motivated and committed to engaging through numerous channels (discussion boards, group work, video conferencing etc).  Our annual in-person RISE sessions were a nice compliment to the distance format, as they provided a time to engage face-to-face, network, and connect. 

In my opinion, the PhD program works because of the faculty.  I am eternally grateful for being paired with Dr. Kathie Insel, my advisor and committee chair.  She challenged me, demanded excellence, and truly set me up for future successes.  Beyond her own engagement with my scholarship, Kathie facilitated invaluable connections both within the CON and beyond.  She connected me with Dr. Ki Moore, who graciously allowed me to imbed with her research team to complete my research practicum.  Ki also went on to serve on my doctoral supervisory committee.  Kathie also helped me to convene a truly interprofessional supervisory committee, including faculty from UA Public Health/Arizona Respiratory Center and Communications.  Not only were they instrumental to my timely completion of the PhD in 3.5 years, but their commitment endures.  Several of my committee members are now my co-investigators an colleagues, which is a true testament to effective and dedicated faculty mentors.

What led you to specialize in pediatric nursing?

I have always known I would work with children.  Every single employment experience I have had has involved working with children!  From being a nanny, a children’s ski instructor, pediatric nurse, nurse practitioner, and now nurse scientist…always my work and my passion has been dedicated to children.  I love their resilience, brutal honesty, worldview and unique, evolving development and needs.  Who better deserves our care?

Tell us about your UW School of Nursing Shark Tank experience as well as the development process for your parent-child shared asthma management app.

My earliest nursing experiences involved caring for children with respiratory conditions, the most common of which was asthma.  During my PNP program, I was fortunate to complete a Pediatric Pulmonary Center fellowship, which expanded my breadth and expertise in caring for children with asthma.  While working as a PNP, I developed and implemented the pediatric asthma clinic as well.  Our clinic was highly effective, and our patient outcomes far exceeded the community standards (asthma control, ED/urgent care visits etc).  I largely attribute those successes to our approach, which centered around engaging the parent and child as a team in managing asthma.  Those experiences are the foundation upon which I have built my program of research. 

During my PhD program, I started developing an idea for a health intervention that teamed parent-child dyads together as a team to manage asthma, and I thought that using technology might be a useful platform.  My earliest iterations of this project came about during my behavioral intervention course with Drs. Kathie Insel and Tad Pace.  Fast-forward several years, and through a collaboration with colleagues in UW Human Centered Design and Engineering, we have used a participatory design approach to develop a parent-child shared asthma management intervention with parent-child dyads as our co-designers.  Central to this idea is that asthma management is shared between parent and child, and we use technology to provide the opportunity for kids to recognize and report asthma symptoms, and parents to monitor those symptoms.  We call the project IMPACT, Improving Asthma Care Together.

We are so excited to see IMPACT gaining momentum!  We initially funded this project on a $2500 award from my professional organization, the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners (NAPNAP).  Several months ago we presented our preliminary work at the UW Nursing Shark Tank event, a funding competition during which several researchers present their project ideas to an audience who then votes to select a winner.  We won $10,000!

In March 2019 I was selected for the Institute of Translational Health Sciences KL2 program, a multidisciplinary clinical research career development program that will provide me 3 years of support to focus on fully developing and testing IMPACT in a clinical trial.  I cannot express how excited I am to hopefully bring my small idea into reality, and hopefully improve the health of children living with asthma.