Combining Clinical Experience with Academic Research

    • July 30, 2012

The problem. Many undergraduate students know little about career opportunities in health services research. In particular, students from racial and ethnic minority groups, low-income families and/or those who are first-generation college students—who do not have family experience to draw upon—may not be familiar with graduate programs leading to health-related research careers, i.e., what academic prerequisites are needed, how to select a graduate school, and how the graduate school admissions process works. They are unlikely to picture themselves as researchers, even though they may have a strong interest in a health-related career.

A deep-rooted commitment to nursing. Dany Fanfan immigrated to Miami from her native Haiti when she was 12 years old. There she attended a high school with a medical magnet program. She says, “It had a great impact on my nursing career.” While in high school she became a certified nursing assistant, worked in two Miami hospitals, and gained firsthand knowledge about what it is to be a passionate nurse caring for patients. Her passion drove her to Florida International University to earn a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing degree.

Stumbling upon Project L/EARN. In her sophomore year at college, on Facebook, Fanfan discovered Project L/EARN, a paid summer research internship sponsored by Rutgers University in New Jersey. Although she had just two days to complete the application, Fanfan immediately knew L/EARN was for her. She had been involved in summer research programs during high school, which she had loved, and was particularly excited to find that two nurse researchers were potential mentors at Project L/EARN. “In the past, all my research was focused more on a medical framework approach. I wanted to know what nursing research was like,” Fanfan remembers. She was accepted as an intern in the 2010 cohort.

Research with personal meaning. At Project L/EARN Fanfan worked with her mentor, Karen T. D’Alonzo, PhD, MSN, in studying the influence of acculturation, marianismo beliefs, and body weight on participation in physical activity among immigrant Latinas. Marianismo refers to a code of behavior among Latinas that dictates that a woman should be a selfless mother and wife above all else. The study sought to determine which factors were the strongest predictors of physical activity.

Results showed that participants with low acculturation to American society were more likely to participate in physical activity. While the study had a low sample size, Fanfan and her colleagues did see trends suggesting that the more an immigrant Latina becomes acculturated and adapts to an American lifestyle the more she loses her marianismo beliefs and also the more her body weight and body mass index increase.

These results resonated with Fanfan, who in high school started battling weight gain. In nursing school, a fellow student from Chile was concerned about returning to her boyfriend and family in Chile because she had gained so much weight since moving to the United States. As Fanfan analyzed the factors that impact weight gain among immigrant Latinas, she “developed a better understanding of why a lot of immigrants gain weight when they come to America. There can be an issue with transportation. They may be low income and may not have access to the nutritious food that they need.”

This was an eye-opener and “I had an Aha! moment” she says. “That was one of the biggest things I got out of Project L/EARN,” she states. “I came to understand what I went through. When I returned home that summer, I explained this to my parents and family members, as we are all immigrants.”

Because of her research, Fanfan was able to provide information and perspective to her Chilean friend. Armed with this knowledge, her friend took control of her eating and physical activity and lost weight. “That was a proud day,” says Fanfan. “I used what I learned and taught somebody to make her life better. So I thought this was maybe my calling: to help others as a nurse researcher.”

During her last two years, Fanfan continued to work with her Project L/EARN mentor while managing her nursing school coursework and clinical rotations. She presented the research at a conference in February 2011 and won a first-place award for “Best Minority Health Research Interest Group” poster. The work continued, and an article she co-authored with D’Alonzo, "Nursing Research in Stress, Psychoneuroimmunology, and Allostasis" will appear in a special issue of Biological Research for Nursing to be published in October 2012.

Plans for the future. Before joining Project L/EARN, Fanfan knew she wanted both to go to graduate school and to be a nurse practitioner. She also was planning to go to law school, but that changed as a result of her experience at Project L/EARN. Fanfan received her Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree in May 2012 and, after completing her nurse licensing exam in the summer, will begin a doctoral nursing program at the University of South Florida in fall 2012.

Fanfan’s interest in nursing encompasses both clinical work and research. While in her PhD program she will also work toward her license as a family nurse practitioner. With a PhD in nursing, She hopes to gain great clinical experiences and to teach and transfer some of her knowledge to nurses in the next generation.

Project L/EARN has been great motivator to Fanfan as she meets the many demands of the career path she has set for herself. “I felt that if I could make it through Project L/EARN, I could make it through anything in life. It’s a great program, and I would recommend it to anyone. The exposure can really be life-changing.”

RWJF perspective. Project L/EARN is an intensive 10-week paid summer internship in health-focused social science research for undergraduate students from groups underrepresented in research. It has operated out of the Rutgers University Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research since 1991. In 2008, after 10 years of funding by the National Institute of Mental Health ended, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) awarded $2,957,826 to the institute to support Project L/EARN through May 2014.

A priority of RWJF’s Human Capital team, says RWJF Assistant Vice President for Research and Evaluation Debra J. Perez, PhD, MA, MPA, “is the support of a highly skilled, well-qualified, diverse health care workforce. Programs like Project L/EARN, which focus on juniors and seniors in college, provide an initial push to move these individuals along on the academic track. RWJF’s support of Project L/EARN is also an investment in the ability of the Foundation’s human capital programs (which focus on graduate-level scholars and fellows) to recruit strong, diverse leadership.”

Perez also emphasizes that “diversity, as a core value for us, is also about quality. We can’t do our work well unless we have diverse perspectives. Ensuring high quality, having impact, and being able to demonstrate social change all depend on the inclusion of diverse perspectives. Project L/EARN is clearly in line with that goal.”

Read the Progress Report on Project L/EARN to learn more.