I am a recent graduate of the BSN nursing program at New Mexico State University (NMSU) in Las Cruces, N.M. I am also Native American, a member of the Navajo tribe. My family and I live on the Navajo reservation outside of Ganada, Arizona. During the summer of 2001, prior to the start of my senior year, I had the opportunity to spend four weeks in Austin, Texas, working as a research intern with Alexa Stuifbergen, RN, PhD, FAAN, at The University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing’s Center for Health Promotion & Disease Prevention Research in Underserved Populations (CHPR). It is not an exaggeration to say that this experience changed my life.
The CHPR is a program funded by the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The center’s mission is to improve the health of medically underserved populations--such as racial and ethnic minorities, women, people with disabilities, children/adolescents and the elderly--through research designed to reduce health disparities.
I first learned about the summer research internship opportunity at CHPR from one of my professors at NMSU, Dr. Becky Keele-Smith. She had just returned from a meeting in Washington, D.C., where NINR announced it was providing special grant funding to several research-oriented schools of nursing to enable them to form partnerships with smaller schools that have large numbers of minority students.
The UT Austin School of Nursing was one of the institutions that had applied for one of these grants. It planned to use the money to sponsor a program that would help increase minority undergraduate nursing students’ interest in careers as nurse scientists. An additional goal was to provide research training and development opportunities for junior nursing faculty at minority-serving schools who were interested in researching minority health disparities.
(L-R): Research interns Nina Ortiz, Denise Griffin, Melanie Long, (standing) and Amber Kozak
As part of NIH’s Research Supplements for Underrepresented Minorities program, NINR awarded the CHPR an administrative supplement grant to partner with New Mexico State University and another minority-serving school, the University of New Mexico. As a result, a group of nursing students from our school was able to travel to Austin and participate in the Summer Research Institute. In addition, two of my professors at NMSU, Dr. Keele-Smith and Dr. Alison Druck, were given the opportunity to “team up” with faculty at UT Austin to develop their research ideas.
When Dr. Keele-Smith asked if I would be interested in working during the summer in Austin doing research, I was very excited. And when I learned that the program was being sponsored by NINR and that my professors would also be collaborating with researchers at UT, I was ready to pack my bags.
The two schools are quite different. The University of Texas at Austin has the highest enrollment of any university in the nation--over 49,000 students. New Mexico State, which is classified as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, has approximately 15,000 students on its main campus. Nearly 50% of NMSU’s students are non-Caucasian (41% Hispanic, 3% Native American, 3% African American and 2% Asian American). It seemed like a wonderful idea for professors and students at NMSU to team up with the large research-oriented nursing school at UT Austin. NMSU is a great school, but its students and faculty can learn a lot from working with established researchers, just as those researchers can learn a lot from working with a school that serves a large number of minority students.
Meeting, Greeting and Learning
There were six undergraduate research interns from NMSU working in Austin that summer. All but one of us were minority students. Each of us was assigned to a faculty mentor at UT, an experienced nurse scientist who helped us understand research from an insider’s perspective.
My days were spent working with Dr. Stuifbergen’s research team on their studies of people with multiple sclerosis and post-polio syndrome. I assisted with data entry and coding narrative data from the research surveys. I even did a data analysis of Dr. Stuifbergen’s study and presented it as my own mini research project at the end of the internship.
The other interns worked on similarly interesting studies, examining minority health issues such as obesity after childbirth in Mexican-American women, sleep patterns of cancer caregivers, and self-care behaviors of children with diabetes.
Besides immersing ourselves in the research process, we spent a day in San Antonio at the annual conference of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses, where we had the opportunity to meet many of the staff from NINR and other branches of the National Institutes of Health. We also got to meet other researchers at UT, some doing research in nursing and some from other disciplines, like sociology, communications and social work.
In addition to our research mentors, we had the staff at CHPR to help coordinate our activities and give us support as we became accustomed to a new town and a new workplace. They helped with travel and transportation arrangements and coordinated housing and food service for the interns. We stayed in dorms and were assigned a CHPR doctoral student who served as a “den mother.” The CHPR staff also organized events and programs for us, such as lunchtime colloquia.
A Researcher Is Born
The Center for Health Promotion was an interesting place, because its mission to eliminate the health disparities of underserved groups is the same as my personal goal as a nurse. It was not surprising that a strong bond developed between the CHPR researchers, the staff and myself.
What was surprising was that I became really interested in the other part of CHPR’s mission: promoting, disseminating and supporting research. I had always thought of research as something that only doctors and lab scientists did. But my experience in Austin that summer changed that idea, both for me and for my fellow interns. We discovered that research is a way of understanding life and exploring ways we can help make things better for people who are truly in need.
Since then, spreading the word about the importance of health promotion research in underserved populations has become my calling in life. When I returned to the reservation after my experience at UT and told my story about what research means to me, I introduced the concept that research can help Native Americans combat problems that are unique to us. However, one person cannot perform all this research alone. Therefore, when I am asked to speak in front of people, I stress the importance of research and give them the confidence that Native Americans can obtain the education and training to do research that will help improve the health of our people.
My research internship at CHPR changed the goals I had set for my nursing career. What I learned in Austin has built a foundation for my future. Our faculty mentors and the staff at CHPR inspired me to give research a chance and to think about pursuing graduate education.
Participating in this internship broadened my horizons. It gave me a chance to meet new people, learn to work with computer programs and databases, experience a place different than home and much more. Most important of all, my research experience at UT Austin helped me discover a lifelong passion that I never knew I had.