A Nurse Faculty Scholar Pursues Clinical and Policy Solutions to Intimate Partner Violence

A profile of Kathryn Laughon, PhD, RN, Nurse Faculty Scholar

    • December 8, 2011

The challenge. Intimate partner violence represents a significant public health burden for society. Abused women and their children are at risk for homicide, injury and a wide range of chronic health problems.

Stemming the tide of this growing problem requires both clinical and public policy interventions. In her research and clinical work on intimate partner violence and its impact on women and children, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Nurse Faculty Scholar Kathryn Laughon, PhD, RN, is attacking the problem from both angles.

Becoming a nurse. Kathryn Laughon never expected to be a nurse, though she had encountered some remarkable ones while working at Children's National Medical Center in Washington in the late 1980s on a project funded by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We were working with children newly diagnosed with HIV," Laughon recalled. "The virus had just been discovered and there was such a stigma attached to it. People wouldn't even walk into the room with a kid with HIV. The nurses were these incredible people on the frontlines, brave and hard working, at a time when most all the kids died."

The experience left its mark. But years later, when Laughon enrolled in nursing school at the University of Virginia, it was for more practical reasons. As a single mother, she needed a career she could count on to support herself and her family.

"I really wanted a doctorate in public health," Laughon said. "But I noticed that people with a background in nursing, even if they never used it, were more attractive in terms of hiring. I decided to grit my teeth and get through nursing school on my way to where I wanted to be."

Much to her surprise, Laughon loved nursing. She liked "the combination of actual skills and a one-on-one relationship with a client, with a sense of the larger system and how an individual fits into the big picture."

A good fit. The nursing field also provided the perfect pathway for becoming a public health researcher. While taking master's level courses at the same time as she was getting her RN, Laughon met Barbara Parker, PhD, RN, a University of Virginia nursing professor who was studying intimate partner homicide and its impact on children. Laughon did a summer research internship with Parker, which led to a full-time job doing clinical work with victims of domestic violence at a local hospital.

Again, it was a good fit. "I knew I wanted to work with disenfranchised populations," Laughon said. "That exposure to what Barbara was doing made it possible. It is all I have done ever since."

Laughon finished a master's degree at Virginia and then, at Parker's suggestion, applied for the nursing doctorate program at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing in Baltimore. At Hopkins, Laughon worked closely with Jacquelyn Campbell, PhD, RN, who became her strong advocate and mentor.

From Hopkins, Laughon accepted an assistant professorship at University of Virginia School of Nursing. When Laughon was in her third year, Campbell told her about a new program that she was heading up for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) called Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Nurse Faculty Scholars. The program seeks to create the next generation of national leaders in academic nursing through career development awards to outstanding junior faculty. For more information, see Progress Report.

Laughon was just the type of nurse the program was looking for—a newly minted PhD, doing important research and showing potential for leadership in the field and beyond. In 2008, Laughon joined the first cohort of 15 nurse scholars, which finishes its three-year appointment at the end of 2011. Since 2008, the program has admitted 54 nurse faculty scholars. The fourth cohort begins its three-year appointment in October 2011.

The power of mentoring. Campbell's mentoring style—personal, direct, comprehensive—became a hallmark of the scholars program, Laughon said. "Jackie tried to make the underlying expectations and formal expectations explicit to her doctoral students and she carried this over to the scholars program," Laughon said. "The other members of the national advisory committee have the same quality. They are tremendously generous with their time and information.

"That is what an old boys' network is all about, and it's how men have always gotten ahead in the world," Laughon said. The Nurse Faculty Scholars program wants women—and the men in the program—to have that "same set of networks and that same mentoring," Laughon noted.

Research on Intimate Partner Violence: Safety planning for battered women. Laughon's RWJF-supported research is testing a computerized safety planning aid for battered women seeking protective orders for intimate partner violence. Safety planning has long been considered the cornerstone of intimate partner violence intervention. Laughon is conducting the first clinical trial measuring the impact of safety planning on women's safety, exposure to further violence, and on the health of both women and their children.

Laughon also is principle investigator on a National Institute of Mental Health-funded study to test an intervention for guardians of children orphaned by intimate partner homicide. And she spends 25 percent of her time in clinical practice as a forensic nurse examiner, conducting evidence collection and caring for victims of sexual assault.

To learn more about Laughon's research, click here.

Intersecting with public policy. Through her research and clinical practice, Laughon is often engaged in public policy work, and through the scholars program, she is sharpening her skills in policy advocacy.

In 2010, 30 nurse faculty scholars joined scholars from several of RWJF Human Capital programs for a health policy training program in Washington. (The other RWJF programs represented were Health Policy Fellows, the Center to Champion Nursing in America, New Careers in Nursing, and Interdisciplinary Nursing Quality Research Initiative (INQRI.) The scholars learned about nursing's role in policy formation at the Institute of Medicine, heard presentations by nursing stakeholder groups in health policy, discussed the impact of nursing research on initiatives at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and practiced making congressional visits.

The scholars also participated in leadership training in 2009 aimed at helping them more effectively present themselves to policy-makers, the media and leadership within their universities. "As part of the training, we were told we were meeting with a senator and given five minutes to figure out what we were going to say. We were videotaped," said Laughon. "That was fabulous."

Putting new skills to the test. Laughon has had unexpected opportunities to put these skills to the test. In May 2010, the University of Virginia was thrust into the national spotlight when a student murdered another student on campus. Because of her research on violence, Laughon became the spokesperson for media interviews. "I was able to have my talking points vetted and get some advice on what to say and how to say it," Laughon said. "It has been good to have the kinds of training we have gotten."

 

Laughon was recently promoted to associate professor in the University of Virginia School of Nursing. She serves on the faculty senate, where she has focused on issues related to campus violence, and on the board of the Nursing Network on Violence Against Women, International. With increased visibility comes increased responsibility—and a platform. After a recent meeting concerning another murder in the community, a local congressman approached Laughon and asked, "What are your priorities?"

 

"I was prepared," Laughon said. "I had double checked what legislation he had sponsored and what committee he was on, and was able to give him three priorities relevant to him.

"That advocacy skill was certainly not covered anywhere else in my PhD nursing program. But it is important if I want to have an impact on policy. We got that leadership training through Nurse Faculty Scholars."

RWJF perspective. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Nurse Faculty Scholars program offers three-year career development awards to outstanding junior faculty. By providing mentorship, leadership training, and salary and research support to young faculty, the program aims to create the next generation of national leaders in academic nursing and to strengthen the academic productivity and overall excellence of nursing schools.

The program has admitted 54 scholars in four cohorts—15 each in 2008 and 2009, and 12 each in 2010 and 2011. The scholars represent 44 U.S. colleges and universities.

RWJF Program Officer Maryjoan Madden, PhD, RN, notes, "Nurse Faculty Scholars is a very important program within RWJF's Human Capital Portfolio where we are focusing on workforce issues, leadership and diversity within the health care professions. There is a shortage of nursing faculty and through this program we are creating a cadre of leaders in academic nursing who will teach the next generation of nurses.

"This is a relatively young program for us—we have just graduated our first cohort. The overall effects will not be known for many years, but already the quality and productivity of the scholars is obvious. As one indicator, nine scholars have been elected to the American Academy of Nursing, the most prestigious honor in nursing. Achieving this milestone so early in their careers is a tribute to their skills as researchers, nurse scientists and teachers—and to the mentoring and leadership development the program has provided.

"Although much of our focus is on enhancing the leadership capability of the individual scholar, we know that scholars benefit the university in terms of research dollars, prestige and influence," said Madden. "That's one reason we have tried to reach beyond the tier-one research universities. By choosing scholars from schools that are not research-intensive, we can help develop the rest of the faculty and strengthen the school."