UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- “What do you want from your career as a nurse?” Paula Milone-Nuzzo, dean of Penn State’s College of Nursing, asked a group of undergraduate nursing students the evening of April 29. “Do you want to change how health care is practiced? Do you want to make quality of life better for your patients? If you do, then research is for you.”
The students were gathered in Penn State’s Center for Nursing Research (CNR) for Meet the Researcher, an event conceived to give undergraduate students a chance to explore some of the career possibilities in nursing science and research.
“Our faculty are doing research in significant areas,” said Janice Penrod, director of the CNR, who came up with the idea. “I frequently hear from undergraduate students who are interested in doing research and want to know how they can get involved. I thought this would be a good way to give them a taste of our research portfolio and connect them with key people.”
Five members of the college’s research faculty were on hand to speak about their areas of interest. Harleah Buck, assistant professor and co-director of the Hartford Center of Geriatric Nursing Excellence at Penn State, described her work with heart failure patients and their relationships with informal caregivers.
“Do you have grandparents?” she asked the students in her session. “Have you ever heard them talk about problems together, even what to have for dinner? Sometimes they agree, and sometimes not. It’s the same with how we take care of our health. I listen to how patients and caregivers communicate about health care decisions.”
Chris Engeland, an assistant professor with a dual appointment in the Department of Biobehavioral Health, presented the results of his studies on how gender and stress affect health outcomes, in particular those related to wound healing. Engeland related his surprise when the results of a study went directly against his hypothesis; what he found is that healing of mouth injuries occurs more slowly in women than in men.
“Lots of interesting and surprising things can happen with research, and it’s sometimes more interesting when things don’t work the way you think they’re supposed to,” Engeland told the students. “Such findings open up more questions and additional research, because things often work differently than how scientists currently believe. Sometimes that’s the coolest thing that can happen.”
Engeland echoed Milone-Nuzzo’s sentiments, saying, “If you work in a clinical area, you can still get involved with research. You may find you have a talent for it, and you may even change the way medicine is done.”
Anne-Marie Chang, another assistant professor with a dual appointment in Biobehavioral Health, described her studies of the genetic and environmental factors affecting sleep and the effects of sleep loss on health and disease risk. Her most recent study described the effects of reading before bedtime — specifically, the use of light-emitting e-readers compared with printed books — on sleep.
Students had the chance to take part in hands-on activities to get an idea of how research is conducted. Postdoctoral Fellow Nikki Hill distributed mini tablet computers to allow them to try out an app she developed to help older adults with memory loss to complete daily tasks. Distinguished Professor Donna Fick presented a case study to demonstrate how a nurse would assess a hospitalized older adult for delirium (acute confusion). And Buck’s participants completed a card-sorting exercise to learn about the technique of concept mapping.
Buck, who worked as a clinical nurse in various specialties before entering academia, said that nurses’ contributions to scientific literature impact what health care practitioners know as “evidence-based practice.”
“Everything you do in evidence-based practice as a nurse has already been studied, measured and quantified by a nurse researcher,” she said. What makes nursing research unique in the health sciences, Buck continued, is that “there is always a human being at the center of it. From Florence Nightingale to today, nursing uses humanistic models.”
Both Milone-Nuzzo and Penrod pointed out that nurses can continue to do bedside care while pursuing research, either as part of their clinical work or in preparation for a career transition. Penrod remarked that the B.S. to Ph.D. program presents qualified undergraduate students with an opportunity to continue on for graduate study and begin building a research trajectory.
“We need researchers who are young enough to have a long career and make a difference in health care,” Milone-Nuzzo said. She concluded by encouraging students to seek out mentors among the research faculty, who could help them find the best fit for their interests.
“You can change the world through research,” she said. “By coming here tonight, you’ve taken the first step.”