Amber Vermeesch

Combining Her Passion for Culture and Health Care: Amber Vermeesch, PhD, FNP-C, RN, FACSM, FNAP

This August, when Amber Vermeesch, PhD ’11, relocates from the University of Portland, where she has been a tenured associate professor of nursing for several years, to her new role as chair of the Department of Family and Community Nursing at the University of North Carolina Greensboro (UNCG), she will carry something very special among her belongings: her great-grandfather’s medical school diploma.

Inspired by ancestors who were trailblazers in teaching and medicine, Dr. Vermeesch has forged a path of her own that combines a passion for culture and a desire to care for people. In addition to her great-grandfather, who was the first physician in the family, her grandmother was a doctor (earning her doctorate in education) and her father became an M.D. and a professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

But, despite the strong family influences in medicine, a health care career was not Dr. Vermeesch’s first choice. As an undergraduate, she was drawn by her fascination with cultures to cultural anthropology. “The study of people and cultures. I love that,” she says. “I still very much love the stories—where people are coming from, what influences their behavior, and what makes them who they are.”

Dr. Vermeesch studied Spanish as her foreign language requirement, traveling to Mexico and Spain during the summers and spending a semester abroad in Leon, Spain.

After graduation, she took time off to explore more of the United States. She tended bar while living on a ranch in Colorado, spent two months trekking New Zealand, and served for a year in AmeriCorps—the domestic version of the Peace Corps—helping to bridge the digital divide among under- served people in Montana.

Then, when her grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, she came home to Nashville to help care for him and her grandmother. The experience sparked her desire to become a nurse. “I chose family nurse practitioner purposefully because I wanted to have a broad range of people I could care for,” says Dr. Vermeesch. “In school they tell us ‘cradle to grave’—we care for everybody.”

In nursing school, she combined her Spanish skills and desire to help people by researching homeless Hispanic men and working as a nurse practitioner in a clinic serving mostly Hispanic women. What she saw spurred her to find ways to increase physical activity among Latinas.

Her work with Latinas led her to the University of Miami, where the NIH-funded Center of Excellence for Health Disparities Research at the School of Nursing and Health Studies was just launching. Vermeesch served as a research assistant for the center, working on HIV intervention and prevention among Hispanic women, and on the “Project VIDA: Violence, Intimate Relationships, and Drugs among Latinos” study.

Since then, she has investigated perceived barriers to physical activity among middle school girls. More recently, her research has centered on promoting health and wellness for students coping with the stress of nursing school. While her work has brought her into contact with a range of people and populations, the overarching theme continues to be “wellness,” both physical and emotional, concentrating on vulnerable populations.

In 2019 Dr. Vermeesch completed the University of Arizona’s Integrative Nursing Faculty Fellowship, where she focused on transforming her teaching pedagogy to inspire fellow nurse educators, students, and clients. In 2020, she became a Fellow in the American College of Sports Medicine and, in 2021, a Distinguished Practitioner and Fellow of the National Academies of Practice (NAP) in Nursing. She also served as editor of a 2021 book from Springer, Integrative Health Nursing Interventions for Vulnerable Populations.

This year brings yet another exciting step along Dr. Vermeesch’s journey, with her move to the department chair position at UNCG’s School of Nursing.

“I hope to bring my wellness expertise and research, especially with the initiative for Vital Practice and its goal of creating sustainable pathways for increasing [resiliency] through improving self-care practices, to the UNCG School of Nursing faculty, staff, and students,” Dr. Vermeesch stated in an announcement from UNC about her appointment. “The pandemic has exposed the need for repair in our health care system, our educational systems, and our personal lives. We are not going back to how we were in the ‘before times.’ For me, this means taking direct and explicit actions to be a part of building the next chapter of the future of nursing and nursing education at UNCG. …”

An earlier version of this profile appeared in Heartbeat