UCI News

Nursing’s role in pandemic research

Faculty and grad students in UCI’s Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing conducted holistic studies of multiple dimensions of COVID-19

by Pat Harriman, UCI | August 2, 2021
Nursing’s role in pandemic research
Sanghyuk Shin and Miriam Bender, associate professors in UCI’s Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing, realized that it was important to create a platform for sharing all the school’s diverse COVID-19 research. So they organized the “Towards a Holistic Understanding of the Pandemic” virtual symposium, at which faculty and students presented their findings. Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing / UCI

The most common perception of what nurses do is deliver healthcare, which includes the administration of medications and injections to patients in a clinic or hospital. What’s not as well known is that nurses also engage in scientific research and studies.

While healthcare workers were fighting on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty and graduate students in UCI’s Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing were battling behind the scenes. Research projects ranged from studying the basic science of the disease and identifying “long-hauler” symptom predictors to assessing the psychosocial characteristics of vaccine hesitancy and evaluating the mental health effects of the crisis on the general population.

“We are academic scholars. Our job is to conduct scientific inquiry to generate knowledge that improves health,” says Miriam Bender, associate professor and associate dean of academic and student affairs in the School of Nursing. “We were quite holistic in our approach to understanding all aspects of the pandemic – from what the virus is and how it’s transmitted to the social impact on individuals and communities.”

According to Sanghyuk Shin, associate professor of nursing and director of the UCI Infectious Disease Science Initiative, when COVID-19 hit, “we were primed and in position to tackle and develop new scholarship about it and all of its multiple facets. We have the established infrastructure of a really rich and vibrant research community.”

Just as people’s daily routines were upended by the pandemic, so was the traditional progression of research conduct and dissemination. Rather than traveling from lab discovery to testing in the clinic to established standard practice, the process was, Bender says, “translational in the moment.” When findings were made about the virus and its transmission, interventions were implemented out in the community and outcomes examined.

“The diversity of expertise was mobilized on one topic; COVID-19 was spurring us along. People’s lives had to be saved,” Bender says. “This was a perfect example of what interdisciplinary research can look like – how knowledge can be produced quite robustly and quickly – and it can serve as a complete model for working in the future.”

The pandemic also brought public attention to health inequities among certain demographic groups across the country. Much of nursing research at UCI has been focused on those who are marginalized and most affected by disparities and disasters.

“Our work is poised to help us understand the extra social dimensions of COVID-19 and how it impacts the homeless, cancer patients, and racial and ethnic minorities,” Shin says. “I really appreciate being engaged in research with our amazing nurse scientists and the emphasis on populations that are traditionally underserved.”

What nursing has in its toolkit, according to Bender, is a participatory approach to addressing healthcare disparities. “The lens we’re looking through is not just about the science but how it benefits and serves the people we’re working with,” she says. “We want to work together with the community to unmarginalize groups and improve outcomes.”

“We realized there was so much really valuable work that was being done, and it was very important to have a platform by which we could share findings among ourselves and with the wider community as well,” Shin says.

He and Bender organized the “Towards a Holistic Understanding of the Pandemic” virtual symposium to highlight all the nursing school’s diverse COVID-19 research. On May 27, faculty and students presented results from their various studies. “This was an ideal way for us to come together,” Bender says. “The pandemic created a common focus across our domains of expertise.”

Symposium presenters from the School of Nursing also included Adey Nyamathi, founding dean and Distinguished Professor; Jung In Park, assistant professor; Heather Lynn Abrahim, Ph.D. student; Dana Rose Garfin, assistant adjunct professor; Candace Burton, assistant professor; E. Alison Holman, professor; and Sarah Campbell, assistant clinical professor.

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