It might be said that it’s the Christmas present Tonja Nansel didn’t get that eventually led the 1983 Hillsboro High School graduate to a position as senior investigator with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, Maryland.
Nansel was in Hillsboro this past weekend visiting her parents, Bob and Betty Seibel. She also went to Wichita to receive an alumni-of-the-year award from Wichita State’s community psychology program.
“It’s an honor,” Nansel said of the award. “It’s almost like they’re family that you launched from. It’s almost like ‘I hope I did you all proud.’”
Her career success has done her family proud as well, even though for several years Christmas held a bit of disappointment.
The Seibel kids made lists of gifts they wanted for their grandparents, but an item from Nansel’s was always missing from under the tree.
“I can’t tell you how many years I put down ‘chemistry kit and microscope,’ and I never got them,” she said.
Still, Nansel found ways to exercise her curiosity in school, particularly in Paul Janzen’s high school biology class.
“Sometimes he would say things just to get people to think a little bit,” she said. “That’s what science is often about, asking questions and thinking about things in a different way.”
Nansel headed to Tabor College in 1983 intending to stay one year, then transfer to Fort Hays State to get a bachelor’s in nursing, but a psychology course taught by D. John Lee caused her to alter her plans.
“When I went to his classes, I just felt excitement in learning,” Nansel said. “I wanted to take all the classes he taught.”
That meant staying at Tabor an extra semester, but Nansel completed her nursing degree at Fort Hays in 1988. Her studies came with an added bonus, as a fellow student, Michael Nansel, became her husband.
The couple moved to Wichita, where Nansel blended her interests by working as a nurse in the area of adolescent psychology. It was tough work, she said.
“The kids we saw weren’t diagnosed with depression or conduct disorder because something was genetically wrong with them,” she said. “It was because they’d had a rough life. I felt like we were slapping Band-Aids on things as fast as the wounds would develop.”
Nansel said she became interested in discovering ways to prevent the kind of conditions which led to these disorders, and that interest led her to enroll in the WSU community psychology doctoral program. That choice led her away from traditional nursing practice into the field of research.
“I found myself going back to this idea of my nursing and psychology roots and how I could integrate them,” Nansel said. They allowed me to develop a course in health psychology, and I found I got really excited about integrating my two fields.”
When she completed her doctorate, she landed a postdoctoral fellowship with NICHHD, which meant a move to Maryland.
“It was stepping stones,” Nansel said. “One thing led to another.”
In turn, the fellowship led to a tenure-track position, in which Nansel has maintained an active research portfolio in the areas of diabetes management, public health, and nutrition. She studies new research directions, oversees implementation of studies, analyzes results, and writes extensively for professional publications.
“My current study is looking at diet and nutrition in pregnancy and postpartum,” Nansel said. “Eating habits start very young and changing them is very hard. The study is about what happens with nutrition early on and how can we shape that so kids get on the trajectory of good eating habits early on, which impacts social development, emotional development, and academic development.”
Students in county schools benefit from work she did early in her NICHHD career in the area of bullying. Teasing out and analyzing neglected data from a study of junior high and high school students, she discovered bullying had negative effects for all involved, and more so for children who both bullied and were bullied.
“It just struck me as an area that might really be important,” Nansel said. “It was the first paper to really be a wake-up call. It’s been cited I can’t tell you how many thousand times.”
Nansel was encouraged to learn about USD 410’s development of career pathways and attempts to get girls to consider careers in science.
“What we really need to think about is how we take these scientific advances and highlight them and spotlight them for kids, and get them to the mediums that reach kids across the nation,” she said. “There’s got to be a way to show that these career paths even exist.”
Nansel said that some progress can be seen across the National Institutes of Health in increasing the number of women scientists, but that the higher one looks, the fewer women can be found.
If she eventually tires of the grind of research, Nansel said she would like to develop young research scientists.
“The thing I find so rewarding is shaping the career development of the interns I work with at NIH,” she said. “It would be really cool if at some point I could go into a program to work with and help young scientists from disadvantaged backgrounds shape their research development.”
As for her thoughts about those childhood Christmas disappointments, Nansel found a silver lining.
“I’m actually kind of glad that I didn’t get the chemistry kit and microscope and go that basic sciences route,” she said. “I love what I do now so much more.”