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How Columbia Nursing's Arlene Smaldone Fulfills a Lifelong Passion to Help Foster Future Nurse Scientists

It was a nurse who served in War World II that first inspired Arlene Smaldone, PhD, assistant dean of scholarship and research to enter the field of nursing. The nurse, who also happened to be her aunt, was the only person in Smaldone’s family to go to college. She said she knew as early as high school that she would one day follow in her aunt’s footsteps.

Now a nurse scientist, Smaldone says that back then, she never dreamed she’d be pursuing research and mentoring predoctoral nursing students. She spent many years working in clinical roles before returning to school to continue her education, and did so only after her youngest child graduated from high school. She decided to pursue PhD education at Columbia University School of Nursing, and went on to complete a postdoctoral training in behavioral research at the Joslin Diabetes Center and Harvard Medical School.

She currently directs the PhD program at Columbia Nursing, and also leads the Interdisciplinary Education Project for the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) funded Faculty Development in General, Pediatric, and Public Health Dentistry program. Smaldone’s research centers on self-management of youth and adults with chronic health conditions. Her current research projects are funded by National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) and HRSA. A recently completed project was funded by the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR). 

Describe your role at Columbia Nursing.

My administrative role at the school is directing the school’s PhD program. That involves overall management and oversight of the program and its curriculum, and recruitment of students. It’s important to evaluate and revise curriculum on an ongoing basis to be sure that our program meets the needs of future nurse scientists.

In addition, I teach a course called “Translating and Synthesizing Evidence” to our PhD and DNP students. It’s a course about reading and appraising the literature. One of the things I try to do is to help students understand how to think critically about published research and its application to practice. I ask them: Is it well conducted? What do the results mean? And should this be something that they should be thinking about incorporating into their practice? Research as an isolated entity doesn’t really achieve its purpose. We conduct research to help inform practice, and also to inform policy.

Why did you choose to come to Columbia Nursing?

I wanted to work in an environment where people were actively doing research. That doesn’t happen in every school of nursing to the same extent that it does here. You want to be stimulated by ideas and interactions with your colleagues because that helps you to think about your own work in a very creative way.

One thing that has been fabulous about being here at Columbia is the connections I have made with scientists who are in other fields. It really enriches the work you can do. I have been very fortunate to work with researchers from other disciplines who have exposed me to different areas in my research that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. You must try to take advantage of opportunities, and I think Columbia Nursing offers you a lot of opportunities to do that.

You run the PhD program. How do you feel about shaping the careers of the next generation of nurse scientists?

It’s a privilege. When people think about education, they commonly think about students taking classes. Classes are certainly an important part of the curriculum, but not the most important part. We want to encourage what I call “experiential learning”. That means working with others on research projects as part of research teams, having exposure to interdisciplinary research through co-advisement from faculty in other departments and other fields, because that is going to help students think about what they should be looking for in their next career step following graduation.

One of the things we have done over the past couple of years is to offer grantwriting workshops to help our students be better prepared for life as a nurse scientist. Following the workshop, students are encouraged to write a mentored proposal to fund their dissertation research, and whether or not it gets funding, it provides a vital learning opportunity. After all, in the world of research, not all good ideas get funded, at least not the first time.

Where do you see the nursing profession going in the next 15 to 20 years?

I think it is an exciting time to be a nurse! Nursing has changed a lot over time. The role of advanced-practice nursing in primary care settings is one key example. No one knows our profession and patient needs better than we do. Well-prepared nurse scientists are needed to pursue important questions to improve health, because our work directly provides evidence to inform healthcare and health policy. Nurses will play all types of roles in healthcare, some which are yet to be envisioned. Columbia Nursing prepares graduates to assume these roles in supporting health. 

Is there any current research you are working on that you’d like to share?

Let me tell you a little about a project that I’m excited about that recently received funding. I’m a co-investigator in a project with colleagues in bioinformatics to develop an informatics tool for self-management of chronic disease using personal self-monitoring data--in this case--for type 2 diabetes. We are looking at how to use fitness trackers that collect personal data ranging from physical activity, nutrition, to even sleep, and figure out a way to connect that with blood glucose monitoring data. We are currently devising ways to synthesize those different streams of information using sophisticated data science methods with the goal of providing adults with diabetes with very tailored self-management recommendations based on their own data. This is a great example of interdisciplinary work – each team member has different but complementary expertise to bring to the table.

In diabetes the goal is to maintain your blood glucose levels in a healthy range; this sounds easy but is often very hard for people to accomplish. They don’t see the bigger patterns in their behaviors. For example, on a morning when I don’t take a morning walk, I might notice that my blood glucose levels are higher. Our hope is to make it easier for people to see the connections between diet composition, activity, sleep and their effect on blood glucose levels. The new project is an extension of research I have contributed to for the past five years, to help underserved adults with diabetes improve their glycemic control and health.

Is there any advice you would give to an aspiring scientist?

I think the passion to want to be a scientist has to be inherent inside you. There are a lot of ways nurses can contribute to society, but if becoming a nurse scientist is your goal, my advice is to do it early in your career. That’s what I encourage people to do, and it is interesting because not everybody feels that way.

Nurses who seamlessly complete their education and graduate with a PhD degree will not have a lot of clinical experience but this is not a problem. They will partner with others, perhaps someone like me prior to completing my PhD, who have seen the problem, but don’t have the expertise regarding how to study it. We envision collaborative partnerships between nurses with PhDs, the research scholars, and DNPs, the clinical scholars, to inform and conduct the research needed to inform better outcomes. Having collaborations like that is really important because it makes research so much richer.