When all roads lead to nursing: Columbia Nursing’s Sally Aboelela discusses her path to the field and how she keeps student morale high

September 1, 2017

When Sally Aboelela, PhD, assistant professor, first came to Columbia Nursing in 2005, she was planning to enroll as a student to become a nurse. She had just finished her Doctorate in Physiology and Pharmacology, with a specialty in Neurophysiology, and was looking to use her bench-side training as a basic scientist to make an impact on the bedside experience of patients. However, after learning that the school needed someone who could teach Physiology and Pathophysiology, she saw an opportunity to immediately pursue her passions for science, healthcare, and education. She took a full-time faculty position instead of applying to become a student. By following this path however, it did not mean she had given up on her goal of becoming a nurse. In 2009, while still a full-time instructor, she went back to school part-time and received her Registered Nursing (RN) degree in 2011.  

Aboelela says the nursing degree helps to round out her understanding of her students, and gives her better clarity on how best to frame biomedical courses in the context of nursing. She currently teaches entry-level Pharmacology, a two-part course on Physiology and Pathophysiology, as well as Maternal New Born Physiology.

What made you decide to utilize your background in biomedical sciences within the nursing field?  

I have a lot of personal experience with family members being ill, or chronically ill, and I have always appreciated the role nurses play—both in bedside nursing and determining how patients really experience their time in the hospital. In fact, just interacting with advanced practice nurses, especially within their roles of coordinating and managing care, I saw a greater level of commitment than with other health care professionals my family interacted with. I have always had a genuine interest in nursing just because of the degree of patient contact, and because of the impact nurses can have on their patients.

I knew after my PhD that I wanted to get a degree in nursing. I studied for my RN part-time while teaching at Columbia Nursing, and then took a break after having children. I haven’t yet expanded beyond that, but just being able to get that foundational nursing education really helps me better understand the context in which students are operating. In fact, it has actually helped me to cater my course material to become more clinically focused, and to be more relevant to students.

Describe your teaching style.

My role and my mission is to give our nursing students a solid foundation in the biomedical sciences, so that they can be the most knowledgeable and effective advanced nurse practitioners that they can be.

I am focused on making sure that students understand the mechanisms and concepts behind what I am teaching, rather than having them focus on memorizing volumes of detail. I care about their success. I hold my students to a very high bar with respect to learning, and while my classes are very challenging, I will do anything in my power to help my students be successful. I think that comes across to them.

This seems particularly important since you focus on incoming first-year students.  

I think that a well-rounded foundation helps students to be fully prepared to walk into the clinical setting. It empowers them to be confident; not unsure of themselves, at least in terms of being able to assess a patient’s status. My hope is that my approach enables my students to communicate better with other nurses, physicians, and everyone else on the care team, as well as with their patients.

What type of research appeals to you?

I have a research collaboration that I am fostering right now, working on blood pressure regulation in pregnant women. My interests have always been in cardiovascular physiology, psychosocial factors, and long-term management of chronic disease.

Is there any advice you would give to first-time students coming to Columbia Nursing?

I always have this conversation with my students on their first day of class! The best advice I have is to focus on what they are learning, and to be willing to work harder than they might have expected or thought was needed. Students should be less focused on grades and more focused on learning. Most importantly, they should commit to making time to take care of themselves, and to ensure that the stress of the environment doesn’t burn them out.

I recommend everyone commit to at least one self-care activity per day, ideally sleep, as they enter the program.