Themes of health, gender equity, hard work, and discipline have been at the core of Dr. Jennifer Prah’s work — not only in her career as an academic and the Amartya Sen Professor of Health Equity, Economics, and Policy at Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2), but also during her years as an accomplished tennis player, for which she was honored on April 28 as a 2024 inductee to the St. Louis Tennis Hall of Fame.

“I really believe that my tennis and my tennis career have helped me develop traits that have served me well as an academic,” says Dr. Prah, who grew up and played tennis in St. Louis, Missouri. During the induction ceremony, held at The Armory, Dr. Prah was honored for a tennis record that included a United States Tennis Association (USTA) national ranking as high as number 6 in girls 16 singles, a national singles finish as runner-up at the 1983 USTA girls 18 clay court championships, and a Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) world singles career high ranking of #184. She received the Multiple Sclerosis St. Louis Sports Celebrity Award in 1984 and was a member of the USTA Junior Federation Cup Team.

Both the city and The Armory hold a special place in the history of the sport. St. Louis Parks Commissioner and Davis Cup founder Dwight Davis led a movement to increase access to tennis by bringing it to public schools and parks. He and other famous tennis players including Butch Buchholz, Jimmy Connors, Ken Flach, Chuck McKinley, Carol Aucamp, Justina Bricka, Mary Ann Beattie, Jimmy Parker, and Arthur Ashe played on The Armory’s courts, and Dr. Prah herself had the opportunity to learn from Ashe.

“It’s been a privilege to be a scholar-athlete, one of the great journeys of my life,” says Dr. Prah, who continued to excel in the sport as an undergraduate at the University of California-Berkeley, where she received the Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman Scholarship and was an All American as well as the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Regional Senior Player of the Year.

Her path as a scholar included earning master’s degrees from Oxford University, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Yale University. She earned her PhD at Harvard University, and also returned to tennis as an assistant coach there.

Reflecting on the road she took to become a leading scholar of global health policy who has produced a multifaceted body of research, Dr. Prah points to parallels between tennis and academic life.

“Craft, hard work, diligence, rigor, precision, skill, and grounding are necessary to be effective as an athlete, and those are also really helpful to being an academic,” she says. “Both are a journey of taking risks, problem solving, finding solutions based on the capabilities you’ve developed over many years. If you can try to develop your ability to be healthy and to flourish as an athlete or researcher, then the ups and downs of the journey are addressable.”

Focused on health and justice as a researcher, Dr. Prah has undertaken a journey to advance understanding of the conditions necessary for human health. Her work also includes a focus on inequities faced by women and girls — another area that she has explored through her sport.

“I found a sense of hope and optimism in tennis — that hard work and fair play could produce conditions for one to flourish,” she says. “And over the years, women have used their voices to make the case for gender equity in sports.”

An outcome of Dr. Prah’s journey is her health capability profile, a set of internal and external components that help determine an individual’s ability to achieve and maintain health. Presenting this work recently for the 2023 McAuley Oration in Global Health at Otago University in New Zealand, she emphasized the aim of making it possible for all people to attain health.

“Creating these conditions and developing these internal and external capabilities is a priority for justice,” she said.