Looking back, Kirsten Corazzini isn’t surprised that she has built her career in gerontology. For starters, “I was always the kid who had zero interest in babysitting but loved the opportunity to volunteer in a nursing home,” she says. In ninth grade biology, she chose to study memory for her independent project. Her lightbulb moment came after college when she was assisting an Alzheimer’s research team. “My mentors all thought I should go to medical school,” says Corazzini, PhD ‘00, who in March 2022 was named dean of the University of New Hampshire’s College of Health and Human Services. Then she came across a social gerontology book with chapters by founding UMass Boston gerontology faculty Frank Caro, Barbara Turner, and Scott Bass. She was immediately drawn to the study of aging and cognition within a social context.
At the time, in the 1990s, just two gerontology PhD programs existed: UMass Boston and the University of Southern California. Corazzini’s father and his family were from the Boston area, so the choice felt easy.
UMass Boston Gerontology was “a 100 percent fit right away,” she says. “I didn’t really understand how remarkable UMass Boston was, and is. I just knew there were faculty who I wanted to study with. The institution has really taken off, with its research portfolio and community engaged research, and even offering a residential option. When I arrived in the 1990s, the university was still on the uptick. Looking back now, as an administrator, I can see how remarkable it was that the founding faculty of UMass Boston gerontology were able to carve out this exquisite, immersive research experience at a university that was still building.”
Corazzini completed her gerontology doctorate at UMass Boston in 2000. Her dissertation on community-based long-term care won the department’s 1999-2000 Gerontology Book Award. She secured a postdoctoral research fellowship at Duke University’s Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development and “trundled down to North Carolina,” sight unseen.
The Duke aging center is “one of the oldest and most respected gerontology and geriatrics centers in the world,” she says. The center is based in the university’s medical school but draws faculty from across the university and medical center. Corazzini found two faculty mentors in the nursing school—the late Elizabeth C. Clipp, PhD, RN, FAAN, and Eleanor McConnell, PhD, RN. “I absolutely fell in love with the interdisciplinary approach and the wealth of resources and expertise in long term care, especially nursing home care.”
After two years as a post-doc, Corazzini joined Duke’s School of Nursing faculty in 2002 and stayed for 17 more years. She focused her research on improving care on the front lines of long-term care. “How do you support the residents, their relatives, and the staff to ensure high quality care? Most of the actual care is provided by nursing assistants. How do you ensure that the clinical expertise of licensed nurses makes it to the front line?” She looked at clinical microsystems—how attending to the needs of everyone involved leads to better wellbeing and quality of life. Her current efforts as part of an international research consortium (with fellow UMass Boston gerontology alumna Bei Wu, PhD ‘00, FGSA), focus on emphasizing measures of residential long-term care that capture joy, well-being, and quality of life rather than frailty and decline alone.
Nurturing curiosity and inquiry
Research suits Corazzini. “I’ve always been somebody who asks questions. There are very few spaces out there where that is expected, not just appreciated. It’s just the nature of our discourse: The new knowledge you learn leads to the next question you need to ask. The beautiful thing about an academic career is that you’re creating an evidence base to inform practice, which in turn informs the next research study.”
She served in a number of faculty leadership roles with increasing responsibility and reach during her time at Duke. In 2017-2018, she won a HERS Fellowship, a leadership training program for women in higher education administration. In 2019, she moved to the University of Maryland to serve as an associate dean in the nursing school. Then the dean’s position opened at the University of New Hampshire, at a college with an interdisciplinary focus. And once again—even though she’s had to build back her collection of wool sweaters and sock liners that she shed when she moved to North Carolina—the fit feels right.
Academic administration at a public university appeals to Corazzini’s passion for thinking about system-level factors that support academic excellence as well as her wish to give back. When she worked at Duke, colleagues and scholars from other schools would tell her, “‘You can do that because you’re at Duke,’” a well-resourced private university. “What drives me forward, having had such an incredible opportunity at Duke, is to challenge those limits and advance inclusive environments of academic excellence across the broader higher education sector. Public universities have critical missions to serve the needs of their state and contribute regional leadership; advancing excellence in the public higher education sector strengthens all sectors.”
Corazzini loves nurturing a sense of inquiry and curiosity in the next generation of gerontologists. “I’m helping them to understand the scientific process. What’s the gap in our knowledge that you think is important to address—what’s the critical, intolerable problem where, if you could just tackle the knowledge gap, we could make headway?
“It’s really exciting to watch as junior scholars begin to develop and ask questions that I wouldn’t have even thought of,” she says. “Undergraduate and graduate students today are at such a different place. They’re thinking more about data, mixed methods, entrepreneurship, and a commitment to community engaged research.”
She tries to channel the late Frank Caro, the former UMass Boston department chair who was her dissertation adviser. “I find myself circling back to my UMass Boston experience in a positive way,” Corazzini says. “It’s really exciting to be in a state with one of the oldest populations in the country. Rather than the narrative of how our young people are leaving the state, how we can’t keep them, we can reframe it and make that a draw, that New Hampshire is a great place to study and pursue careers in gerontology.”