Jo Anne Earp believes UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health hired her fresh out of Johns Hopkins University not because of her doctorate in behavioral sciences but because the health behavior department chair at the time, Guy Steuart, was a rebel and saw her as a rabble-rouser.
Her new colleagues may have been skeptical because she had no master’s degree or postdoctoral experience. But Jo Anne, one of the first women to join the faculty, put their concerns to rest by immediately winning a large grant from the National Institutes of Health.
With that, Jo Anne’s career at UNC took off — 40 years of tenacious advocacy, of opening doors for people and pushing them through, of spotting wrongs and righting them, of acting on her beliefs, especially her belief that the world can be changed and she can do it, and so can you.
As an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr in the early ’60s, she was on every picket line in Philadelphia. She fought on the front lines of civil rights confrontations in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Her drive to end racial disparities underpins all of her research, whether it’s in HIV/AIDS or breast cancer screening. An innovator of the lay health adviser approach now used all across the country, Jo Anne founded the N.C. Breast Cancer Screening Program that got screening for more older black women in poor, rural counties in North Carolina. This enabled them to begin treatment sooner, like their white counterparts, and reduce their mortality rate. Then she went a step further and evaluated its effectiveness on a population level, confirming that the approach had closed or reduced the racial gap in all counties.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and NIH have lauded her research approach as a highly effective program, an honor difficult to achieve. Her research has been rigorous and path-breaking and has had lasting impact. The same can be said about her mentoring.
Her multicolored editing of manuscripts inspired its own verb: “earping.” Michael O’Malley, who has collaborated with Jo Anne longer than anyone except her husband, Shelley ’70 (MD, ’72 MS), wondered whether she had edited over days and used a different pen each time or whether she had written so much she’d run out of ink. Either way, earping attested to the time and effort Jo Anne put into helping those she mentored become better.
Jo Anne continued to find things to do at UNC. Seeing there was no required research methods class in health behavior, she invented one and taught it for 19 years. Likewise the lack of any professional development for doctoral students: She created a four-semester sequence. She helped create and taught the first women’s health class. She developed a patient-advocacy course and, along with Elizabeth French ’94 (MA), edited the first textbook on the subject. She has chaired 17 dissertation committees and served on 30 more. And she has mentored hundreds of students through their master’s theses.
Over the course of her career, Jo Anne has hired more than two-thirds of the health behavior faculty. She chaired the department twice for a total of nearly 14 years. For 17 years, she served on the core faculty of the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program in the UNC School of Medicine.
Among her many awards for teaching, mentoring and research, Jo Anne has received the McGavran Award for Excellence in Teaching, the Cecil G. Sheps Distinguished Investigator Award, the John E. Larsh Jr. Award for Mentorship and the Women’s Leadership Council Mentoring Award.
Jo Anne never let a “no” stop her. But in this, the last year of her phased retirement, she’s looking forward to being harder to find when someone needs a letter of recommendation written. She thinks it might be nice to read a novel, without a pen in her hand, instead of someone’s manuscript. And she might travel, to visit her two sons, her grandchildren and the “hundreds of daughters” she has mentored over the years. She will continue to make a difference, changing the world one person at a time.
The Faculty Service Award is presented by the GAA Board of Directors.