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A Conversation with Boston College CSON Dean Susan Gennaro

Susan Gennaro (Photo by Gary Gilbert)

By Kathleen Sullivan | Chronicle Staff

Published: May 8, 2014

What are some examples of the research being conducted by CSON faculty? And how are nursing undergraduates and graduate students contributing to this research?

Nursing faculty are conducting research on many different areas of health and illness. There are areas of research designed to decrease health disparities –like Allyssa Harris’ work on using alternate media forms to provide positive health messages to adolescent women, or Kathy Hutchinson’s research on preventing sexually transmitted diseases among adolescents, or my own work on factors that influence preterm birth in minority women. There are groups of researchers working on better ways to care for the elderly, like Ellen Mahoney’s work on dementia and care-giving, or Pat Tabloski’s work on pain in the elderly, or Stewart Bond’s work on palliative care and oncology patients.  

In fact, the research being conducted in the Connell School spans prevention to treatment and the youngest of the young (neonates born to soon) to the very old. Faculty research examines significant health deviations, like Lichuan Ye’s research on sleep apnea, while fostering health, like Holly Fontenot’s research on increasing vaccination for HPV, a virus that leads to cancer.

We are very committed to working with our students over all levels of our programs to participate in research.  Our undergraduate research fellows program pairs undergraduates to work with faculty nurse researchers. Students are involved in the research process at all stages and seem to delight in learning how to systematically identify and solve problems through research. Our master’s students have the opportunity to do independent work with faculty as part of a research practicum and our doctoral students serve as PhD fellows to pair with faculty researchers doing research in an area of interest. I myself have had the distinct pleasure of having three articles published with undergraduate students as well as a number of articles with PhD students.

Learning from a book about research can be effective but learning from patients while doing research really contributes to our students learning valuable skills in problem solving needed to create change.
How is the Connell School of Nursing responding to the national shortage of nursing faculty?

We have worked diligently to ensure that our nursing faculty have the resources they need to stay in nursing academia and to thrive. We have expanded support for research: summer funding for researchers, start-up funds for nurse researchers new to the BC community, research support pre- and post-grant funding. We also have developed innovative practice models such as the Haley Nurse Scholar program. This specific program is funded by a generous donor to a local medical health care center and specifies that BC faculty have research and practice privileges at that site and resources in which to conduct research.

These academic research/practice partnerships facilitate nursing faculty to partner with local health care institutions to use research skills to help solve health concerns. For example, Lichuan Ye, a noted sleep researcher, is working with ICU nurses to identify ways in which ICU patients can have better sleep while in the ICU. We don’t have a hospital here at BC so it is vital that we develop models that work to span the practice/education/research interface.

Without the academic/practice partnerships, more nursing faculty would leave the educational side for their research and practice. We are also, of course, committed to educating future nurse faculty in our PhD program and to ensure that this is a rigorous program whose graduates are well prepared to join the ranks of nurse faculty.

Faculty and students traveled to the Dominican Republic earlier this year in the first CSON trip to that country. Why are such international experiences so vital to today’s nursing student?

One of our strategic aims in the Connell School is to educate nurse leaders who practice with a global perspective. This is vitally important to ensure that in the US we are using best practices from around the world. It is also essential to understand that disease is not a local phenomenon and the health of any part of the world has implications for us all. One very clear way in which this is true is that nurses care for people from all over and it is important that we understand how cultural beliefs shape health practices. The more we understand the social and global determinants of health the more we can develop health care strategies that work.

Our students, like all BC students, are women and men in service to others and our international trips are first and foremost service trips in which we provide direct care and health education. Our international trips also carry academic credit and allow students to fulfill clinical hours. Service learning is one of the best ways to step outside of our own culture and question our locally proscribed assumptions. All of us will benefit as the health care leaders of tomorrow have a longer global view.

The Connell School of Nursing will move from Cushing Hall to Maloney Hall in the summer of 2015. What will be some of the advantages of the school’s new location?
There are two tremendous advantages to us in this move. We are increasing our space by 80 percent and increasing collaborative space. The increase in space is allowing us to double our lab space and our simulation space as well as to increase our exam rooms. We will have state-of-the-art learning laboratories and students will be able to practice through simulated learning before they care for actual patients. As the length of a hospital stay has decreased we find that the acuity of hospitalized patients continues to increase. So having more learning lab space is critical so our students can practice on mannequins prior to caring for very sick patients.

Health care of the future is going to be all team care and so we have deliberately built collaborative spaces where faculty and students can work together in small groups on research, education, and practice concerns.  We are sad to leave Cushing Hall and are including design elements in our new space to honor Richard Cardinal Cushing and his commitment to nursing education. We know that with his vision of what nurses could and should do to improve health that he would be happy to see us in space that is truly designed for the nurse of the 21st century.

What news can you share with us about the upcoming leadership transition in the undergraduate program?

After eight years of fabulous leadership, Associate Dean Catherine Read is transitioning back to the faculty. As of July 1, we are very fortunate to have Dr. Sean Clarke join us as the associate dean for undergraduate programs. Dr. Clarke is a very well known educator who has served on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Toronto and McGill University. In the latter two appointments he also held joint appointments with the health care system. He has taught in both undergraduate and graduate programs and on a more personal note is a nurse who is married to a nurse.

So, Dr. Clarke has a very broad understanding of nursing education and practice both in the United Sates and globally. He is an internationally known health services researcher whose work is helping to inform answers about how to organize health care that is affordable but is also high quality. We are very pleased to welcome Dr. Clarke to this new role in which we know he will excel.

What is something about the Connell School of Nursing that people might not know?

We are a diverse group of women and men who are committed to improving health. You might equate nurses with health but I doubt you know about our diversity, or about how we have ensured that our commitment to health is actualized in action. In terms of our diversity, we have four men who are nurses on our faculty and are looking forward to welcoming Dr. Clarke as the fifth. This is much higher than national averages.

Every group of students, our faculty and our staff have increased in diversity over the past six years. We have had many strategies over this time period to ensure that each member of our community, whether faculty, staff, or student, has the skills to welcome diversity and to thrive in a diverse community. Perhaps because of our diversity we have also been instrumental in identifying strategies to improve the health of BC. We have partnered with the HEALTHY YOU program for faculty and staff and with health promotion in Student Affairs to improve the health of all of the BC community.

And did I say action speaks louder than words? I can’t answer any more questions because I have to go walk now. The Connell School has been the winner in the Walk Across Campus program twice now, and I personally have increased my own best action plan by meeting the surgeon general’s 10,000 steps a day recommendation for over 15 days in a row.  

Keep stepping, take care of yourselves, and welcome the diversity of ways in which we can be our best and most healthy selves.

Click here to read the next interview in the series: A Conversation with WCAS James Burns