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Making Research Real for Students

Monday February 7, 2000
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Why does the thought of research make nursing students feel immobilized and inadequate? Students tell us that nursing research articles are dry and difficult to interpret and require advanced and specialized knowledge to understand the methods and analysis presented. And frequently, the application to clinical practice seems remote. How can faculty expect that students will embrace the research process and participate in studies after graduation?
The answer to these questions is that students will not learn to overcome their hesitation about being involved in research unless they are assisted to make research real through hands-on experiences during their educational programs.
Students as Researchers
At Boston College School of Nursing (BCSON), undergraduates and graduate students have a variety of opportunities to learn about research by participating in faculty research. "Promoting Healthy Responsiveness Between Depressed Mothers and Their Infants" (also known as the Baby Talk project) is a project funded by the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation in conjunction with support from Boston College.
During the past two years we have been conducting research with students as significant members of our research team. These students learn about the day-to-day operations of a clinical research trial that involves screening 1,200 postpartum women recruited from Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, MA, and Brockton Hospital, Brockton, MA, and conducting home visits with 123 mothers with symptoms of depression.
Undergraduates work on the project as part of a work-study program and as undergraduate research fellows through an innovative program that provides financial support for academically-talented students to participate in faculty research. The undergraduate students help with contacting all the participants by telephone and mail, organizing research materials including screening tools and home visit packets, and learning technical skills involved in transferring videotape and computer entry of data.
Making the Connection
Because of the project's links to practice, the undergraduates can identify the value of testing an intervention. Jobs that might seem routine, such as organizing questionnaires, take on new significance as the students witness how every activity contributes to the project's success.
For example, when students enter data from questionnaires, they often ask questions about the meaning of particular responses. Those questions prompt faculty to teach them about the construction of research questionnaires including ways to ask about ethnicity and race, income, and maternal health history. In addition, they learn how symptoms of depression can be measured. Research takes on meaning related to clinical practice when the students make the connection between the numbers to be entered for analysis and the women's actual responses.
"Working as an undergraduate research fellow has introduced me to another dimension in nursing," says BCSON senior Leanne Simpson. "It not only has given me an understanding of the research process that is the foundation of our practice, but has also provided me an opportunity to collect data at clinical sites, to become familiar with research tools, and to collaborate with nursing faculty and the program director."
Graduate students have also played key roles on the research project team as research assistants (RAs). These graduate students gained experience as RAs and also fulfill a graduate program research requirement by developing protocols and analyzing data from the project to answer their own research questions.
For doctoral students, involvment in faculty research provides invaluable experience. Joann Trybulski, RN, ANP, a BCSON PhD student, brought many practice skills and experience to her interviewer role. During the last year of her fellowship she is engaged in data analysis and preparing scholarly presentation abstracts and manuscripts.
Research Is Important for All Nurses
Opportunities for practical research experiences, such as those from our "Baby Talk" Project, are needed for students and nursing clinicians as we meet the challenges in the 21st century. For all of us, being a part of a funded nursing research project fostered pride in our profession. Given the critical role that nursing research will play in the coming years as we strive to demonstrate the outcomes of our practice, our profession cannot afford to view research as an academic activity left to others.