Published August 26, 2022

Pictured above: Fellows and faculty involved in the inaugural summer 2022 program include fellows Sungao Macauley, far left; Rachael Merrick, second from left; Samantha Lafferty, second from right; and program founder Mei Rosemary Fu, professor and senior associate dean of nursing research, fifth from left.

A new Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden research fellowship aims to advance the science of care

By Jared Brey

Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden senior Sungao Macauley had doubted herself at first, so she was thrilled to win a spot as one of seven students in the inaugural class of the school’s Undergraduate Nursing Research Fellowship program. She went on to spend six weeks over the summer working with nursing faculty on a variety of research projects that included interviewing residents of an assisted-living facility in Camden and conducting research for a project focused on climate change, health, and environmental justice. “I went to do something that I wasn’t comfortable in, and it opened up my eyes and showed me I could do a lot more than I thought I could,” Macauley says.

Macauley felt particularly inspired after assisting Mei Rosemary Fu, professor of nursing and senior associate dean for research, and Wanda Williams, a clinical associate professor whose research analyzing racial disparities in breast cancer screening in Camden is funded by a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant. Williams is a breast cancer survivor, and Macauley found it insightful to work with from someone with lived experience. She also felt motivated by learning from faculty of color who had risen to the heights of the nursing profession. “It’s different when you have somebody who looks like you, and they’ve made it so far,” Macauley says.

Fu, an accomplished nursing scholar who joined the Rutgers–Camden faculty in 2021 after posts at NYU and Boston College, founded the fellowship program to deepen undergraduate student exposure to research. All nursing students at Rutgers–Camden take a research class as part of the core curriculum, but the summer fellowship gives students a chance to dig deeper. Fellows focus on collecting, reading, and analyzing research data, and conducting literature reviews. Fu said with more research studies being conducted by nursing researchers, future fellows will be offered a comprehensive experience that will enable them to conceptualize, complete, and disseminate a study.

Aside from bringing new rigor to their research skills, Fu says, the fellowship also allows students to learn from accomplished scientists and expand their professional networks, opening up new potential avenues in their careers. Opportunities to hone professional skills included making a presentation to the senior vice president and chief nursing executive at Cooper University Health Care.

The ultimate goal of the fellowship, Fu says, is to prepare nurses to play a role in improving the overall quality of health care. “Nursing is a care profession, and you need to develop science and knowledge which are evidence-based,” she says. “That’s the major driver of nursing research—to advance the science and knowledge of patient care.”

Fundraising for year two

Fu began organizing the summer fellowship program soon after she arrived at Rutgers–Camden, raising $10,000 to support the program. That included a substantial donation of her own and significant donations from interim university Provost Donna Nickitas, formerly dean of the School of Nursing, and interim Dean of the Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden Marie O’Toole. In all, 25 donors pitched in, which allowed the school to offer each student participating a $600 stipend and free summer tuition. (Fellows earn one hour of course credit for the program.)

Fu is currently seeking donors at all levels to help expand the fellowship and is hoping that it can be offered for cohorts of up to 40 students per year in a few years. She says the program will build research capacity at the school and deepen collaborations with Rutgers and health care systems and communities, as well as prepare a new generation of nurses to provide better care. “Training students from the undergraduate level and providing opportunities for them to observe successful researchers are important for their career development,” Fu says.

Camden Nursing School
Seated, from left: Nancy Cresse, clinical assistant professor; Margaret Avallone, associate dean and clinical associate professor; Donna M. Nickitas, interim provost; Marie O’Toole, interim dean; and Daniel Fidalgo Tomé, coordinator, Engaged Civic Learning Program. Standing, from left: fellows Rachael Merrick, Skyla Mateo, and Narjis Jaffry; Mei Rosemary Fu, senior associate dean and professor; fellows Manpreet Rayjma, Samantha Lafferty, and George Gandour; and Kate Brennan, senior director for development.

How research benefits nursing

Samantha Lafferty, a junior, decided to enter the health care field partly because of her experience growing up with a grandfather who had Alzheimer’s. A project she did on genetics as a high school senior sparked her interest in the research side of the profession. She says that helping to analyze and verify data for real research projects led by Fu and others inside and outside the university was an enlightening experience. She saw it as a way to get exposure to many more patients’ perspectives than she would just by doing bedside care. “There’s always a new, better, more efficient way of doing things,” Lafferty says. “I think doing research to find out what those ways are, using evidence-based practice, really can change the way that health care is done.”

Rachael Merrick, a recent graduate who completed the fellowship, says while nursing experience makes you a better researcher, the reverse is also true—having familiarity with research and data can make you a better nurse. “I think it gives you a different edge, a different mindset,” Merrick says. “It makes you a more well-rounded nurse. You bring a different aspect to your care and working with your patients.”

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