Mentor, Researcher, Friend: Gerontology Professor Nina Silverstein Retires
Nina M. Silverstein, PhD, professor of gerontology at the University of Massachusetts Boston, retired on May 31, 2023. Highlights of Silverstein’s three decades at UMass Boston include mentoring hundreds of students, co-authoring three books, and spearheading research on aging and transportation as well as age-friendly universities.
Silverstein’s transportation research began early in her career when her study of wandering behavior led her to see that people with dementia were getting lost while driving. In 2004-2005, Silverstein spent a sabbatical with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Alzheimer’s Association public policy office in Washington, DC, expanding her research and service to issues of community mobility. In 2012, recognizing that driving cessation meant individuals living with dementia had limited mobility options, she worked with Helen Kerschner, PhD, former president of the Beverly Foundation, to design two courses on transportation for older adults, one for graduate students and the other for professionals in transportation and aging. In 2018, the two researchers published Introduction to Senior Transportation: Enhancing Community Mobility and Transportation Services, the first textbook on the topic.
Fran Carlin-Rogers served with Silverstein on the Transportation Research Board’s older adults work group and on a number of review committees of national associations. “It has been my pleasure to collaborate with Nina on several key projects such as a review of dementia friendly transportation for the State of Florida,” says Carlin-Rogers, AARP’s Driver Safety National CarFit coordinator. “Our recommendations from this project serve today as the basis for developmental work in this important area across our nation. Through these efforts, I have witnessed Nina’s creative mind in action, her innovative approach toward analytical thinking and problem solving and her natural ability as a teacher/leader in the community. Most important of all, is her active support and ongoing respect for her students, both in their professional development and personal pursuits.”
Among the changes Silverstein has seen over the years is a greater awareness of the needs of people with dementia. Earlier in her career, “cognitive frailty wasn’t on anyone’s radar,” she remembers. “People with dementia were around us, but they were invisible. Creating dementia friendly communities was a nascent idea.” Similarly, she sees greater awareness of impaired driving and the need for community mobility options that include assisting people “to and through the door.”
In 2014, the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education awarded Silverstein with its Hiram Friedsam Mentorship Award. “I’m a connector,” Silverstein says of her teaching and mentoring. “I enjoy teaching students the knowledge and skills to address community challenges from research design through data collection, analysis, and dissemination.” She encouraged her students to participate in professional organizations and to engage with their communities by serving on volunteer boards and committees. “I liked building confidence in students’ abilities to pursue their passions and contribute to making a difference for older people, their families, and their communities.”
Bei Wu, PhD ‘00, Dean’s Professor in Global Health and vice dean for research at New York University’s Rory Meyers College of Nursing, worked as Silverstein’s research assistant while earning her doctorate. “Our relationship has evolved from a professor-student/research assistant dynamic to a deep and meaningful friendship,” Wu says. “Nina’s caring and supportive nature has had a significant impact on my personal and professional growth. As a professor, she goes above and beyond her role, demonstrating genuine concern for her students’ well-being and success. Her support extends beyond the classroom, making her a reliable source of guidance throughout my career.
“Her mentoring style is characterized by empathy and encouragement,” Wu continues. “Nina’s generosity shines through her willingness to support students. Whether it’s through offering additional resources, connecting them with opportunities, or providing emotional support, she consistently goes the extra mile.”
Colleagues say they, too, have benefited from her mentorship. “She’s been a highly supportive colleague to me and so many others from the day we arrived on campus, giving us wise counsel and advice whether we knew we needed it or not,” says Edward Alan Miller, PhD, professor and chair of gerontology.
“I admire and respect Nina’s professionalism, generosity, caring, and integrity,” says Beth Dugan, PhD, professor of gerontology, who calls Silverstein a “colleague, mentor, and friend.” The two researchers have partnered since 2012 on a Healthy Aging Data Reports series. “Nina is an expansive, creative thinker and I tend to try to narrow our focus, so it’s a wonderfully rich contrast that benefits the science and our projects.” Silverstein supported Dugan as she faced tough parent care issues, “then gave me space to grieve after they died,” she says. When Silverstein faced a serious health challenge a few years ago, “she kept right on meeting her responsibilities, taking care of students, and moving the field forward,” Dugan says. “I’ll never forget the lessons she taught me in perseverance, conscientiousness, and hope.”
“Nina has been a valued colleague for 25 years,” says Jeffrey Burr, PhD, professor of gerontology. “I admire how she has always been a student-centered scholar who works effectively with students in all of our programs, from doctoral candidates to undergraduates. She has added to our department’s international reputation by being at the forefront of research on transportation and aging, healthy aging, and dementia. As one of the world’s leading scholars and advocates for age-friendly universities, she has received major funding to support these efforts.”
As Kerschner remembers, collaborating with Silverstein often led to enjoying her friendship. As co-authors and co-teachers, the two women worked together in California, Washington, New Mexico, and Boston. “My several trips included work at UMass but also many happy hours with Nina and her family and friends. Her visits to New Mexico, where I live, were for professional purposes, but somehow, we managed to find time for sightseeing and the joy of friendship. I wish her well in the many roads she will travel in her new life.”
Silverstein earned her doctorate at Brandeis University and taught at Simmons College for 10 years before joining UMass Boston in 1994. She is a Fellow of the Gerontological Society of America and has held leadership roles in that organization as well as the Academy for Gerontology in Higher Education and the Alzheimer’s Association.
In retirement, she will continue assisting Dugan on the Healthy Aging Data Reports series, working with the age-friendly university team she has assembled, and serving as associate editor with the Journal of Transport & Health. With more time and flexibility she plans to travel with her husband, Irwin, and enjoy visits with her three grandchildren and their parents.
“I am privileged to have had a career I love and the opportunity to engage in teaching, research, and service,” Silverstein says.