A singular spirit: Scholar, community health nurse, and Connell School Professor Melissa Sutherland
by katie koch, photograph by gary wayne gilbert
"Let me introduce you to my board," says Melissa Sutherland, an assistant professor of community health at the Connell School of Nursing. "I think it's beautiful."
Sutherland gestures toward a flurry of multi-colored Post-it notes organized under headings—"Grants," "Data Collection," "Manuscript in Progress," and, her favorite, "Manuscript in Review"—tacked to a bulletin board on the wall of her Cushing Hall office. She keeps copies of rejected articles in the corner, taped up behind a file cabinet, as constant reminders of work yet to be done.
Sutherland, now in her second year at Boston College, has plunged headfirst into the nursing community with unflagging energy. A former nurse practitioner at a sexually transmitted-disease clinic, she brings a passion for sexual health and violence prevention to both her graduate and undergraduate community health classes and her research collaborations at the University.
"I'm busy, and I like it," says Sutherland, whose "enthusiasm and presence" helped garner her the nursing faculty's 2010 Spirit Award, a high honor for a new professor, according to Susan Gennaro, dean of the Connell School of Nursing.
"She's that rare combination of somebody who can really teach, can really research, and can really provide care," Gennaro says. "It's amazing to get it all in one package."
Sutherland arrived at Boston College with impressive research credentials. The National Institutes of Health funded her 2008 doctoral dissertation on the link between childhood sexual abuse and adult women's safe-sex practices. In that study, Sutherland charted the sexual health practices of women who had experienced interpersonal violence and dissociation—the psychological coping mechanism of mentally distancing oneself from a traumatic event—a phenomenon she continues to research.
Last summer, supported by a Research Incentive Grant from Boston College, Sutherland began interviewing women at a clinic in upstate New York and compiling extensive, detailed sexual histories of women who have been involved in violent relationships. She hopes these case studies will provide a detailed portrait of how violence can affect every aspect of a woman's life. "My dissertation involved pencil-and-paper questionnaires," she says. "Now I'm really getting to ask questions about women's experiences with the health care system, reproductive health, and dissociation."
A New York state native, Sutherland holds a bachelor's degree from Cornell, a B.S.N. and master's from Binghamton University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. Her interest in women's sexual health dates to what she recalls as "phenomenal" years she spent as a nurse practitioner at a county-run sexually transmitted infections clinic in Binghamton, N.Y. While there, she started thinking more systematically about her patients' sexual decision making and how better to reach women. A mentor suggested "the piece I was missing was violence," Sutherland says. "When you become aware of the issue of violence, it's like an awakening," she says. "You realize how many people are victims."
Teaching community health at Boston College has helped her foster awareness about violence prevention among a whole new audience, Sutherland says, and adds, "It's also a global issue, and it needs as much attention as it can get."
While she misses the clinical setting, Sutherland says she gets a thrill from working with students. "They made me think about assumptions I've made," she says. "For some people, that's not a comfortable place to be, but it's necessary to go there as an educator."
Meanwhile, Sutherland is also pushing boundaries in her research. A visiting scholar this year at McLean Hospital, the renowned Harvard-affiliated psychiatric facility in Belmont, Mass., she works with a team of staff nurses and researchers to develop interventions for patients with schizophrenia at risk of developing metabolic syndrome. A condition that puts an individual at risk for diabetes, stroke, and heart disease, metabolic syndrome's risk factors include obesity, high blood pressure, higher-than-normal fasting blood sugar levels, high levels of triglycerides, and low levels of HDL cholesterol. The leading medications for schizophrenia are known to cause similar side effects.
"So often in these in-patient treatment settings, there's no real discussion of health promotion—diet, exercise, maintaining health," Sutherland says. The patients "are just there to get stabilized on their medication and then they're discharged." The hospital intervention could take the form of a diet and exercise program, Sutherland says, but it would also "be a great place to start conversations, especially so patients know that these medications have side effects."
A community health nurse at heart, Sutherland says her ultimate goal is to find ways for patients to thrive outside the confines of a hospital setting or without a schedule of medications. "One day I had this realization that my patients went home, and that their care here is just a tiny little piece of their lives," Sutherland says. "They go home to their families, their communities, their environments, and that's what matters."
Sutherland says she believes nurses are perfectly poised to effect change. "The unique thing about nurses is that we don't just look at one diagnosis or one issue," she says. "We look at the patient as a whole."
"She's a smart researcher and a thoughtful person," says Angela Amar, an associate professor of psychiatric and mental health nursing who is working with Sutherland on both the McLean project and a sexual assault survey for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "She's not going to do something just to say she did it." While Sutherland ultimately wants to work on sexual violence issues, her work with McLean "extends her reach and builds on the work she's done as a family nurse practitioner."
"She has that impulse to excel, but she's also a reflective person who can go out and change the world," says Amar. "She has that spirit that exemplifies BC."
School spirit, however, only goes so far: Sutherland says she rooted for her alma mater when the Eagles met Virginia on the field this fall. ✹