By Anna Hoffman
Three junior students at the University of Florida College of Nursing were named UF McNair Scholars for 2018-2019. This prestigious program prepares undergraduate students for the pursuit of a doctoral degree and provides a research stipend of up to $2,800 per student.
The McNair Scholars Program is funded by the U.S. Department of Education and supports undergraduate students across the university who come from low-income, first-generation and underrepresented backgrounds and who plan to pursue a Ph.D. Each student is paired with a faculty mentor in his or her respective college with similar research interests. The student and mentor work together throughout the year so the student can gain research experience and develop academic skills and strategies to prepare them for success in higher education.
Eighteen students from across UF were named McNair Scholars. The three juniors from the College of Nursing were Ilse Velazquez, Tanisia Esalomi and Darchelle Excellent.
Velazquez and Esalomi are part of the College of Nursing’s EMBRACE program (Engaging Multiple communities of BSN students in Research and Academic Curricular Experiences). EMBRACE provides unique research and leadership opportunities for nursing students from multiple backgrounds, to create an inclusive environment for different viewpoints in the scholarly nursing community. The students were able to discover faculty researchers whose interests align with their own. It was through this connection that a relationship formed and they were encouraged to apply to the McNair Scholars Program and start down their path to earning a doctoral degree.
Get to know our McNair Scholars
Ilse Velazquez is a first-generation Mexican-American, the youngest of six children and a Machen Florida Opportunity Scholar. Everything changed for her family about seven years ago when her father was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
“My father didn’t understand his diagnosis and still struggles with his care plan,” Velazquez said. “His job is making sod pellets, and he is the main source of income for my family. When his health suffers due to diabetes complications, it is very difficult for my family.”
This personal experience opened up her interest to studying diabetes in Hispanic families and helping find a way for families like her own to manage the disease.
It was through the EMBRACE program that Velazquez was connected with Assistant Professor Lisa Scarton, Ph.D., R.N., who conducts research focused on Type 2 diabetes prevention and management in racial and ethnic minorities with an emphasis on the American Indian population.
Scarton grew up in the American Indian tribal lands of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and spent time as a child helping her grandmother care for neighbors and family members who had chronic illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes. She realized that diabetes diagnoses do not just affect the patient or the caregiver, but the entire family.
“I listened to Ilse’s story about her family and her father’s struggles with Type 2 diabetes,” Scarton said. “Her story was very similar to my own and influenced her research interests, just as my background has influenced my research. We have similar goals, to not only help our people, but to decrease diabetes-health disparities in all racial and ethnic minorities.”
Throughout the year-long McNair program, Velazquez will be working with Scarton on her research in the development of a culturally tailored intervention for the American Indian population.. Scarton’s project focuses on building a multigenerational intervention for American Indian families, including diabetes prevention for youth and diabetes management for adult family members. Velazquez will assist in the development of the intervention components with an ultimate goal of taking what she has learned from the American Indian research project and applying it to her own research interests for Hispanic families.
“Working with Dr. Scarton on this project has led me to realize my own dream of pursuing a doctoral degree in nursing,” Velazquez said. “My interest in diabetes research will be both a part of finding a cure, but I also want to help Hispanic and Latino families like mine understand diabetes and how they can manage the disease. I am very excited and really hopeful for what we are going to accomplish through the McNair program and this research.”
Scarton said the McNair program is giving Velazquez the opportunity to both expand her diabetes research and ultimately focus it and develop her own intervention program for the Hispanic population.
“Ilse’s interest in conducting innovative research in the area of Type 2 diabetes will not only move nursing science forward but will help to decrease diabetes-related health disparities in racial and ethnic minorities. The McNair Scholar’s program will encourage her interest in research and prepare her for future doctoral studies,” Scarton said.
For Darchelle Excellent, who is also a first-generation student and Machen Florida Opportunity Scholar, her interest in research did not develop until she became a student at the College of Nursing and realized both the potential and the need for more diversity among nursing researchers.
“I always thought research was boring and was not something I would ever be interested in,” Excellent said. “It wasn’t until I started my nursing courses last year that I realized nursing as a profession needs diverse researchers, like me, in order for improvements to be made in the patient care setting. This was a motivating factor that encouraged me to be a part of the future of nursing programs that are striving to achieve the level of diversity to welcome and attract people of all races.”
Excellent’s mentor, Associate Professor Leslie Parker, Ph.D., ARNP, wasn’t always interested in being a nurse researcher either. Part of her motivation for mentoring is to encourage undergraduate students to earn their Ph.D.
“If you can instill that research is fun and exciting to undergraduates at a younger age, you can make a huge difference in nursing,” Parker said. “My motto now is ‘research is sexy.’”
Excellent, who is from Naples, will be working with Parker on research involving educating mothers with babies in the neonatal intensive care unit on ways they can produce more breastmilk. Because babies in the NICU are often too sick or too small to breastfeed, it is important that the mothers are educated on pumping immediately after delivery to increase production of breastmilk. In particular, Parker and Excellent will be working with African-American women in the UF Health NICU because this group experiences higher rates of pre-term delivery, and they are seven times less likely to provide breastmilk, Parker said.
Excellent, whose parents are originally from Haiti, said she was attracted to this research because her sister was born prematurely five years ago and her mother faced many obstacles with breastfeeding.
“This research hits home for me,” Excellent said. “My mom tried to breastfeed my little sister and had a bad experience with it because she wasn’t producing enough milk. Now I will be involved in research that shares the importance and benefits of breast milk and educates women like my mother on how they can succeed in breastfeeding their baby.”
Tanisia Esalomi always knew she wanted a career in health care. She grew up in Tampa and was exposed to health care and the hospital setting through her parents – her father who is an RN and her mother who is an LPN. She chose nursing because it allows her to have diversity, both with patient interaction and the opportunity to establish connections with researchers who share her same goals.
Like fellow McNair scholar Ilse Velazquez, Esalomi was introduced to research through the EMBRACE program, and she never looked back.
“Through EMBRACE, I knew I wanted to be involved in research,” Esalomi said. “I realized all the different things you can do with a PhD, including teaching. Growing up, I never had teachers who look like me. I would like to change that for the next generation and also help lessen health disparities and stigmas for people of color through research.”
Esalomi will be working with faculty mentor Associate Professor Robert Lucero, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.N., FAAN, on a pilot study that focuses on African-American women living with HIV. This study will characterize an objective measure of antiretroviral therapy adherence through the use of a Medication Event Monitoring System called Wisepill. Wisepill is a pillbox used to electronically capture via wireless technology each time a research participant takes medication.
Based on the latest figures in 2010, the HIV mortality rate for African American women between the ages of 25-44 was 10.3 per 100,000 women compared to 0.7 per 100,000 among white women. This is second only to the rate among African American men, Lucero said.
“We are hoping to gain understanding of the use and acceptability of a MEMS by African-American women with HIV to learn more about how their experiences might be related to barriers of ART adherence and stigma,” Lucero said. “Our long-term goal is to improve viral suppression for African American women living with HIV. Tanisia will be a part of the team making that happen.”
Tanisia will assist the pilot study this summer and help with the recruitment of patients, training on the use of the system, data analysis and follow-up assessment.
“I am really excited to have the opportunity to represent the College of Nursing as a McNair Scholar and looking forward to working with Dr. Lucero on this research study,” Esalomi said. “Health disparities and stigmas against people of color is very near and dear to my heart, and I am ready to make an impact and a difference among vulnerable populations.”