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From Graphic Artist to Nurse Researcher: Associate Research Scientist Carolyn Sun Focuses on Improving Global Health


A former graphic artist, Carolyn Sun ’15, PhD, didn’t immediately know nursing was her calling. Graduating with a BA in art, she held an office job designing brochures and flyers for civil engineering construction projects. It wasn’t long, though, before she discovered her passion for nursing, earning her doctorate at Columbia Nursing.


As an Associate Research Scientist, Sun focuses on translational research, working with nurses both locally and globally to identify and address clinical nursing and midwifery research priorities. She is also part of Columbia School of Nursing’s “Linking to Improve Nursing Knowledge” (LINK program) to bridge the gap between academic research and clinical practice.

What made you want to pursue a career in nursing?

Actually, I didn’t know I wanted to be a nurse right away. In fact, I used to be a graphic artist for a civil engineering company. So, I really did and do love art. You can even see some of my own personal paintings hanging in my office now.


But, going into the office every day and sitting there — I just felt like I wanted to do something more altruistic. This ambivalence certainly showed when I went for a college counseling interview about my intended major. I was divided between art and nursing. Ultimately, I chose art. However, I soon realized I really wanted to make a difference and help people.


That’s when I asked my friends who were nurses if I could shadow them. I was sold – I decided to go back to school for nursing, which was the best career move I ever made.

What made you want to earn your PhD in global health nursing and why did you select Columbia Nursing for your doctoral education?

My motivation for pursuing a PhD in global health nursing came from my father. Growing up, my dad who was an electrician by profession but a jack of all trades—good at construction, plumbing and pretty much anything—had always gone on mission trips that needed a handyman or help. For instance, he might go build an orphanage in Romania or a school in Mexico. I would go with him sometimes, and it really opened my eyes to global disparities.


As for why I chose Columbia Nursing, there were two reasons: first, was the school’s world-renowned reputation; and second, there was a real emphasis on global health and understanding health disparities.

How do you view the role of a nurse scientist and how does Columbia Nursing foster nursing science?

There’s been an ongoing discussion about what a nurse scientist is. This discussion stems from people realizing that nurses, being the providers who spend the most time with patients, are the obvious choice for conducting research to improve nursing practice and patient outcomes. They speak to patients and their families and through that process gain a holistic view of their health. I see a nurse scientist as being that critical piece between knowledge and practice.


For me, Columbia Nursing is a great place to be a nurse scientist, given the joint appointment I have with Columbia Nursing and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. In this role, I help clinical nurses who are interested in research conduct their own studies. I also identify research priorities to better implement culturally sensitive and clinically relevant nursing practices.

Much of your research has focused on trying to better understand clinical nursing and midwifery research priorities, particularly in Africa and the Middle East. What drove this research focus and what have your findings been?

Research should but isn’t always directed at the most critical priorities or knowledge gaps. That is why it’s important to identify research priorities as a first step, which wasn’t being done in those parts of the world.


In addition, interventions should be country specific. For example, the interventions that would apply in the U. S. don’t translate to war-torn countries or places where people don’t have clean running water. I found that research and the practice that follows must be circumstantial and contextual to be effective.

Congratulations, again, on your research grant, entitled “Writing to Improve Nursing Science in Malawi (WINS in Malawi),” being the first grant funded by Columbia University School of Nursing’s new Global Development Fund. Can you elaborate on the outputs of the intended research and why Malawi was chosen?

We’ve been working with Kamuzu College of Nursing in Malawi for quite a while. Recently, the school suffered a serious financial blow when the Malawian government chose to defund public schools like Kamuzu. The school wanted to improve its financial situation through increasing research and identifying grant sources.


We had done a WINS workshop before and felt Kamuzu was the perfect candidate. Though much of the faculty were PhD holders, they had little published research, which would preclude them from serious grant consideration. So, Associate Professor of Nursing Maureen George, PhD, and I decided we should replicate the WINS workshop.


We’re planning to have Kamuzu faculty work in teams and write three systematic reviews that we will workshop so that they are publishable; we will also help them during the publication submission process. We’ll then start working on Specific Aims pages for grants that they’ve identified they want to pursue.

Would you like to add anything else?

In essence, we’re all the same. We’re all nurses, and we all want to have current, applicable, locally and culturally sensitive evidence. That through-line in our work—that shared goal of translating our science to patient care—is what keeps us connected.