Jennifer Horney '90 and family. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Horney.


Alumni Q&A with Jennifer Horney ’90

Professor and Founding Director, EpidemiologyCore Faculty, Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware

BA, economics and art history, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1994

MA, art history, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1996

MPH, public health leadership, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2003

PhD, epidemiology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2009

Tell us a little about your work:

For an academic, I have a relatively unusual job as the founding director of a new department — which means I got to build it from scratch. During normal times, my work is a mix of service on national boards and workgroups and teaching, mentoring, and research in my focus areas of outbreak investigations and disaster epidemiology. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the interest in epidemiology has grown, as has the demand for epidemiologists, and I have shifted to helping shape the university’s response, including developing a screening survey required for anyone coming to campus and serving as the only faculty member on the university president’s Health Advisory Committee.

How did you find your way to this position?

Wow, a long and winding road! After getting a master’s degree in art history, I worked in fundraising at art museums, a humanities organization, the University of North Carolina’s Honors Program, and as a foundation officer. An opportunity to travel to Africa as a tourist opened my eyes to the field of public health when someone recommended Laurie Garrett’s book “The Coming Plague” to me. I went back to school for a master’s in public health, and after working as a researcher in public health emergency preparedness at UNC for a few more years, got a Ph.D. in epidemiology. After faculty roles at UNC and Texas A&M, my family and I moved here to the University of Delaware in 2018.

How do you remember your experience at NCSSM? Did it influence your path to your current professional role or place in life, and if so, how?

At the time, Science and Math helped me figure out what I didn’t want to be. I started there wanting to be a geneticist, and through an opportunity to do research with Dr. Steve Warshaw, realized that a career in a lab wasn’t going to be for me. More than anything, I think, it was great to see people from across the state who were different than you. I came from a very small town and a very small high school. As small as Science and Math was, there was some larger amount of anonymity there for me in terms of academic achievement. For the first time, school wasn’t easy, but it opened my eyes to what was possible and, I think, gave me the confidence to explore a lot of things without worrying that I was somehow making a mistake.

How do you recall your first day on campus?

A couple of highlights: Feeling like I was ready for my parents to leave, but they didn’t quite want to (this was back when long-distance phone calls cost money and I knew they’d miss me being around since I was the youngest child in my family). Being sure that our room on 1st Beall was too small for two people to live in. Meeting my “big brother” — back then there were “facebooks” with copies of photos of the juniors, and the seniors arrived on campus before us. They introduced me to other friends on 3rd West in New Dorm (later Hunt) who ended up being close friends that whole two years and beyond.

Is there a memory that, when you think of NCSSM, frequently comes to mind?

I think my main memories are actually outside the classroom and were more of the daily life we had as high school kids. Late-night bus trips back from sports. Eating bagels with friends on Ninth Street. Housekeeping time on the hall. To me, Science and Math was a sort of shared experience that you always have with other alumni, no matter the year that you graduated or if you knew each other well during those two years. Even after a long time apart, there is a connection when you come back together that binds you in a supportive way that I think is unique to the experience there.

Has your perception or understanding of the school and what it provides changed since you’ve had some years to consider the experience in the context of your larger life?

I cannot imagine my life without Science and Math… there is really no counterfactual! 

Tell us about the biggest adventure of your life.

Probably my biggest adventure has been leaving North Carolina for professional reasons. Although I’ve had the opportunity to travel a lot and did study abroad and internships, I really never imagined living permanently in another state. I truly believe in the mission of Science and Math as it relates to keeping STEM professionals in the state. But my family has had adventures living in both Texas and Delaware — both different and similar to N.C. in surprising ways — and we have met a lot of people and had a lot of experiences that we would not have had if we had lived only in N.C. I still consider myself a North Carolinian through and through!