At age 12, she asked the question that drives her research today.
A nervous eighth-grader, I proudly stood by my science-project display—The Greenhouse Effect—at the Sun Country Regional Science Fair. Based on a magazine article I’d read about the effects of fossil-fuel emissions (then dubbed “greenhouse gases”) on global warming (then “the greenhouse effect”), I had devised an experiment that exposed trapped greenhouse gases to sunlight. It was an assignment for a hybrid statistics and physical science class I was taking, and we were required to present our findings at the school science fair. I had never submitted anything for the fair before so thought it an incredible stroke of beginner’s luck that my project was selected to advance to the regional level.
A bookish-looking judge in a brown tweed coat and wrinkled khakis parked himself in front of my table. After scrutinizing my display and scribbling notes on his clipboard, with a pencil worn down to the nub, he picked up my research paper, flipped to the pages that showed my calculations, and nodded his head as he looked over my data tables.
Pausing for a moment, he asked, “So what if the greenhouse effect doesn’t exist? Why does it matter?”
“Well, I guess I never really thought about that,” I sheepishly replied.
He nodded his head. “Uh-huh. I see. What do you think your findings mean?”
“Well,” I started, my voice trembling, “my experiment showed that there wasn’t a significant difference in temperature between the different gases I worked with. I guess you could be right.” I gulped and then asked timidly, “Um, don’t you think it matters to ask how people affect the environment, even with the things they just do every day?”
I had almost forgotten about that science-fair project until I was a student in my first doctoral class—Roles of the Clinical Nurse Scientist. The assignment was to articulate, via a PowerPoint presentation, how and why I was drawn to nursing research and a career as a nurse scientist. It was then that I realized that the seed to pursue research had been planted in me 26 years earlier, when I was a nervous, fidgety 12-year old at a science fair. Since then, I’ve survived hours of research-methods classes and am now a candidate in a PhD program in nursing, getting ready to defend a dissertation and program of science dedicated to exploring care of people with dementia from the perspective of the health-care consumer—the person with dementia.
Frequently, I’m asked how and why I wound up “here,” a nurse scientist in training. As with many nontraditional students enrolled at nursing schools across the country, I took what I call an unplanned scenic route to nursing. It wasn’t until after I obtained a bachelor’s degree in government, served as an elementary-school substitute teacher, spent nearly seven years as a military logistics officer, earned a master’s degree in human relations, and put in a short, unsatisfying stint as corporate manager for a medical-device product line that I became a medical-surgical nurse. Along the way, I took every opportunity to teach and engage in research.
When I finally arrived at nursing school, I knew immediately that nursing would be the hardest job I’d ever love. Of all the stops along my journey, nursing remains the calling that makes me feel most connected to others. In fact, I doubt I could ever leave direct patient care behind completely, because the bond that forms between me and my patients keeps my science grounded in the realities of our complex health care system and its primary stakeholders, our patients.
As I near the end of my doctoral program, I’ve been waxing sentimental about the many research mentors I’ve worked with along the way.
First is my mother, a retired psychiatric clinical nurse specialist who practiced for 35 years. She helped develop my reading, writing, and research skills at an early age and, to this very day, still critiques my work. A family friend, who was a nursing professor and sometime associate dean at a local university, got me access to the university library when I was a junior high student, and she reviewed my first attempts at designing research studies. At my first alma mater, I enjoyed engaging lectures and seminars from expert teachers and researchers. (The best of them were successful at making a large state university feel like an intimate, customized learning environment.) Later, several Air Force commanders and senior noncommissioned officers reminded me that graduate education is a prerequisite for career success, both inside and outside the military. All these mentors primed my curiosity and enthusiasm for lifelong learning, and they helped me appreciate the importance of scholarship as a resource to be developed and shared for the greater good.
It only got better in nursing school. My interest in pursuing adult medical-surgical nursing was especially inspired by my first and last undergraduate clinical instructors, both of whom were med-surg clinical nurse specialists with expertise in palliative care, end-of-life care, and pain management. When I expressed an interest in nursing research, my first clinical instructor promptly called the office of nursing research to set up an appointment for me to meet with the associate dean for research. She, in turn, invited me to attend weekly research seminars sponsored by her office and partnered me with a faculty mentor who gave me the opportunity, while still an undergraduate, to present posters of our work together at three research conferences.
After finishing my BSN, I plunged right into working full time as a medical-surgical nurse and, with much encouragement from my undergraduate mentors, began pursuing the BSN-to-PhD program. The highlight of my master’s program in administration was an active research partnership with the program’s director. The PhD program director has provided unflinching moral support and occasional reality checks as I’ve battled the self-doubt and near-burnout that plague every doctoral student. And that same associate dean for research who took me under her wing and paired me with a mentor continues now, as chair of my dissertation committee, to keep me on my toes.
I think back to the question I timidly asked that science-fair judge: “Don’t you think it matters to ask how people affect the environment, even with the things they just do every day?” Now, as a nurse scientist in training, the fundamental question that drives my work is, “For their health, doesn’t it matter to ask how people live their lives every day?”
I’m incredibly lucky that I get to ask that question for a living, because so many people have invested in my success. I wouldn’t be who I am today—a registered nurse, naturalized U.S. citizen (of Filipino descent), veteran, PhD student, teacher, and scientist—without the proverbial village that raised me, the human connections to which I’m tethered and that continue to embrace and nourish me. Looking back, I realize that winding up here, as a nurse scientist, isn’t so improbable. After all, it is through nursing research that I, along with other nurse scientists, am called to discover how and why human connections are vital to promoting health and well-being, and that work—making those discoveries—matters.
Gretchel Ajon Gealogo, MSN, RN-BC, CMSRN, MHR, an adult med-surg nurse and member of the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International since 2009, is a PhD candidate at the School of Nursing, The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.