Opening Doors to Undergraduate Nursing Research

August 10, 2010 — At the University of Virginia, two summer programs exposed both undergraduate nursing students and recent graduates to important research programs.

Nursing students receive some exposure to research in a required third-year course, but the Nursing Undergraduate Research Initiative and the Rural Health Care Research Summer Internship Program allow them to participate in research that seeks to prevent illness, improve clinical practice and influence health policy.

The initiative, funded through a grant from the U.Va. Alumni Association's Jefferson Trust, is supporting four summer research students in 2010. The program is designed to create a four-year experience that progressively exposes students to nursing research, sparks their spirit of inquiry and encourages pursuit of evidence-based practice.

In addition, Elizabeth Merwin – associate dean for research, director of the Rural Health Care Research Center and Madge M. Jones Professor of Nursing – obtained funding from National Institutes of Health for the Rural Health Care Research Summer Internship Program. This year, 15 students and approximately 15 faculty members participated in the program with a broad variety of research studies.

Two recent nursing graduates used the opportunity to complete their distinguished major projects and move toward publishing their findings.

The Nursing Undergraduate Research Initiative: Inspiring Student Scholars

Theresa Carroll, assistant dean for undergraduate admissions and student services, and associate professors Emily Drake and Sarah Farrell designed the research initiative, which includes mentoring, roundtables and financial support for summer research. Second-year student Samantha Hudgins heard of the initiative through a class announcement. Keen to do research, she was able to participate because it was a paid internship.

She worked with Drake and doctor of nursing practice student Sharon Corriveau on a prenatal education study aimed at increasing the rates of breastfeeding among low-income women. The two-year project involved researchers from U.Va. and Virginia Commonwealth University in a randomized clinical trial testing a prenatal video education tool.

"It's great to be doing research as an undergraduate," said Hudgins, whose growing interest in maternal and child health extends to a global context. "This is so important to the Third World."

Likewise, third-year student Kimberly Prosser was thrilled to participate, since she sees nursing as underrepresented in research.

"The public doesn't see that side of nursing – the scientific knowledge," Prosser said. "The ability to synthesize information is an important skill for clinicians as well as researchers."

Working with graduate student Jamela Martin and associate professor Kathryn Laughon, Prosser helped conduct focus groups of battered women with the goal of developing a brochure aimed at reducing both the risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and intimate partner violence among women identified as being at risk.

A rising second-year student, Eliza Peak returned from a public health course in Guatemala just in time to plunge into her summer research with Farrell and nursing instructor Elke Zschaebitz. The study focused on using telemedicine technology to address cervical and breast cancer issues among rural Southwest Virginia women.

The Rural Health Care Research Summer Internship Program: Involving a Diversity of Students and Projects

The Rural Health Care Research Summer Internship Program offers research partnerships between seasoned researchers and a broad mixture of students from the School of Nursing, other U.Va. schools and outside universities.

Nursing students Di Umoh and Chantal Nizam worked with faculty teams on interrelated diabetes studies that looked at cultural issues interwoven with data studies.

Umoh worked with investigators to test a new approach to diabetes self-management among African-Americans in rural areas. She updated background literature and transcribed audiotapes from weekly group sessions held in rural Louisa County.

"The students bring unique and interesting questions and help us to see our project in new ways,"  said associate professor Sharon Utz, one of Umoh's mentors. "Their backgrounds and experiences add to the richness of the team and our understanding of the clinical problems we study."

Umoh saw the experience as an important one for students. "As nursing students, we often fail to acknowledge just how crucial research is to our practice," she said.

Nizam, a rising third-year nursing student, participated in a study in the Grand Bahamas under the guidance of assistant professors Ishan Williams and Kathryn Reid. The project focused on enhancing collaboration in rural international research, while addressing the global need for diabetes self-management training.

Nizam helped gather data and organize materials to help meet the grant's short timeline. She said she valued the introduction to research methodology and seeing its potential impact on clinical practice.

For Williams and Reid, Nizam's assistance was critical. They see the program as useful for grooming new scholars. "This program clearly puts undergraduates into research," Williams said, "which is a great path for encouraging new graduate students, especially in nursing."

For May nursing graduates Michelle Dorsey and Katy Bagley, the summer program offered a chance to take their distinguished major projects to fruition and professional publication.

Dorsey, the school's first winner of a University-wide Harrison Undergraduate Research Award, worked with Merwin and assistant professor Mary Gibson to complete her own research on the strengths and weaknesses of rural prenatal health care, a step toward her intended career of combining clinical practice and research.

Bagley's rural research is more personal. With family in southwest Virginia and eastern Tennessee, her distinguished major project was inspired by a culture and health care class taught by assistant professor Audrey Snyder and by her experience at the annual Remote Area Medical Clinic in Wise.

Bagley studied patient satisfaction with the RAM Clinic, the factors that determined whether or not a patient would return the following year, and the patients' ongoing use of community health resources.

With one manuscript ready to submit to journals, Bagley expects this summer's follow-up study to result in a second paper. It will also provide insights to improve patient experiences and access to RAM and to assist local community health providers.

"The Rural Health Care Research Summer Internship Program has been a tremendous success for the school," Merwin said, "and I sincerely hope we can find a way to sustain it.

"Through these experiences, students learn that they don't have to make a choice between clinical practice and research. They can combine both. The research can become a foundation for their entire career. It will likely influence some to pursue graduate school and doctoral education."