Five researchers who join the Connell School faculty this fall share an interest in the social determinants of health
Lindsey Horrell, Ph.D., MPH, RN, is interested in how we can communicate better about health. Most immediately, she’s seeking strategies to appeal to adolescents and young adults (AYAs) who have survived rare and virulent forms of cancer, and who are “trying to build independence for the first time,” Horrell explains.
AYAs are often left out of the culture of traditional care, in which they are classified as children or adults, she says. “You’re either on a bed you don’t fit on with Mickey Mouse on the wall, or with a lot of really aging patients. It can be a very isolating time.”
Horrell, who is teaching Principles of Evidence-based Nursing and Population Health Theory this year, received an MPH and a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She comes to Boston College from UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, where she was most recently a postdoctoral fellow in the Cancer Health Disparities Training Program. There she explored particular complications faced by young adults with cancer, from grappling with transitions in the American health care system, such as losing coverage under their parents’ health insurance plans, to changes in their personal lives, such as starting a new romantic relationship or heading off to college.
The study of AYAs is an emerging field, Horrell says. But recruitment can be a challenge, as teens are ready to move on. “Our current work is doing focus groups and interviews virtually, so that we don’t have to rely on participants within an immediate radius,” she says.
Health communication is a long-time area of interest for Horrell. As a graduate student, she worked with researchers at the Gillings School and the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism to enhance public messaging about chronic health conditions. At Boston College, she says, “I am looking forward to expanding my collaboration circle, and also continuing my collaborations with my team at UNC.”
When Melissa Uveges, Ph.D., M.A., RN, worked as a nurse in neonatal intensive care units, she sometimes found herself fixated on how decisions are made. Watching parents make wrenching choices on behalf of babies undergoing treatment for birth defects, or thinking about what makes it easier or harder to determine whether infants with congenital abnormalities should undergo surgery are questions that helped shape her career.
Uveges earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Berry College, a B.S. in nursing from the University of Florida, and an M.S. in nursing and an M.A. in religion with an ethics concentration from Yale before she was chosen for a two-year fellowship in clinical ethics at Montefiore-Einstein Center for Bioethics in N.Y. She received her Ph.D. in nursing in 2018 from Johns Hopkins University, where she focused her dissertation on decision-making among parents of infants who were receiving treatment in neonatal intensive care units for major congenital anomalies.
Currently a member of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Ethics Advisory Committee, Uveges was most recently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard Medical School Center for Bioethics, where she studied decisionmaking for pediatric populations and their families.
“Genetics specialists are involved in communicating genetic information to families,” she says, “but nurses are at the bedside.” Learning how best to communicate information—about best practices or the specific legal and privacy aspects of genetic information in the United States—is an expanding area of her research. This fall, she is teaching Ethical Issues in Advanced Practice Nursing.
Uveges thinks of nurses as translators of information. “A lot of times, nurses are…answering questions and helping [patients and families] understand what it means for them,” she explains. “Nurses tend to build close relationships with the families,” she adds. “Sometimes we’re the first ones to learn about their concerns.”
Boston College’s sense of mission drew her to the school. “The focus around social justice really aligns well in terms of my background,” she says. She is looking forward to “thinking about how we can...prevent things like discrimination from happening when we learn new information, in genetics or other areas of health care.”
Shortly after Cherlie Magny-Normilus, Ph.D., FNP-BC, arrived at the Connell School, she learned that she and her research team had been awarded a timely and impressive research grant. The accomplished scholar received a K99/R00 grant from the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Nursing Research for her project Self-Management and Glycemic Control in Adult Haitian Immigrants with Type 2 Diabetes.
Magny-Normilus’s research looks at social determinants of health care. “If you don’t have access to affordable housing and if you don’t have access to a decent environment in which to live, how can you afford good quality health care?” she observes. The COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected communities of color, further highlights the significance of the question driving her research.
She was a young nurse working at Brigham and Women’s Hospital when she began to notice health disparities among her patients. “I saw patients here in Boston from minority groups who were having by far the worst health outcomes,” she recalls. She now researches these health disparities, focusing on Haitian immigrants with type 2 diabetes.
Magny-Normilus comes to her work from personal experience. She emigrated from Haiti to the United States at age 13 and maintains a close connection with her native country. In addition to conducting signal research, she has worked to help implement a collaborative nursing project in Haiti between Regis College in Weston, Mass., and Haiti’s Ministry of Health.
“I wanted to be able to contribute to what I was seeing in the community and hopefully be able to improve their overall health,” says Magny-Normilus, who taught a newly developed course called Examining Diversity in Nursing and Health Care during the summer.
Magny-Normilus is expected to transition to a tenure-track position in 2022, once the innovative grant mechanism that funds the training portion of her funded research is completed. And she continues her research and collaboration with other faculty and staff.
“I’ve always wanted to find a voice...to help those in need,” she says. “And nursing is that voice.”
Erin Murphy-Swenson, DNP, MSN, BSN, was working in Rwanda in 2013 when she experienced what felt like a revelation. She had traveled with four fellow midwives to Nyagatare (a town in the country’s northeast), to train birth attendants and student midwives to perform basic techniques such as episiotomy reduction, management of postpartum hemorrhage, and neonatal resuscitation.
Rwanda lacks technology such as continuous fetal monitoring devices and ultrasound machines, considered standard technology in American labor and delivery settings. Its absence gave Murphy-Swenson and her colleagues an opportunity to become more in tune with the laboring women. They had to rely solely on their skills as midwives to find indicators many doctors look for with machines.
Caring for women during pregnancy has been a centerpiece of Murphy-Swenson’s career as a registered nurse, nurse midwife, and instructor. “A lot of times people think of pregnancy as a normal healthy process,” she says. But in the United States, that’s not necessarily always the case. The maternal mortality rate in the United States is very high: 17.4 per 100,000 live births, and even higher for Black women—the worst rate in the developed world. Her work centers on “the warning signs” of a faulty pregnancy and pregnancy complications such as preeclampsia. Nurses are “the first ones to recognize that something is not going right,” she says.
Murphy-Swenson decided to pursue a career in academia to give future nursing professionals a strong educational background “so that they can go on to continue to improve the future of health care and ultimately patient outcomes,” she said. Until recently, she was an assistant professor at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. This year, she is co-teaching the Childbearing Nursing Theory didactic course and Women’s Health Advanced Practice Nursing I, and taking on a clinical group on a labor and delivery and postpartum unit. “I am looking forward to educating the providers who will be at the bedside, continually assessing and caring for and educating patients about the importance of understanding not only the normal but also the abnormal, to help with prevention, recognition, and early intervention.”
Patricia Underwood, Ph.D. ’10, FNP-BC, RN, joins BC this fall from the endocrinology unit of the VA Boston Healthcare System. She runs a VA clinic in Bedford, Mass., where she cares for patients who use insulin pumps, continuous glucose monitors, and other forms of diabetes treatment technology and assistance—all in a virtual setting. Her work involves video and telephone sessions with patients, a program started about a year ago that has been expanded during the pandemic.
She was the first provider in the endocrine clinic at VA in Boston to use virtual care on a weekly basis, she says. “We saw the benefit of providing virtual visits because many of our veterans lived in rural areas. It’s very hard for them to get into the city.”
The chronic nature of diabetes interests Underwood. For one thing, she explains, “you can work with patients throughout their lives. It’s not the kind of thing that we can treat and [it] goes away.”
She was drawn to the complex medical disorder after working in a solid organ transplant unit, where many of the patients ended up developing diabetes because of the immunosuppressant medications they were prescribed. That experience, she says, furthered her interest in “how diabetes develops in different people and during the course of different treatments.” Underwood has researched the genetic underpinnings of diabetes and hypertension and studied the effect of a nurse practitioner-led hospital team that aims to improve diabetes care for patients going into surgery.
At BC, she is teaching a master’s-level clinical course called Primary Care for Families/Advanced Practice Nursing I. She is also overseeing nurse practitioner students in clinic two days a week.
Underwood is looking forward to returning to Boston College, where she completed both master’s and Ph.D. degrees, and so, she says, is her family, which is made up of “big BC sports fans.”