Cover Feature

Cutting-Edge Research: College of Nursing Grows its Research Portfolio

Nursing student working in a lab

[Photo: College of Nursing]

By SARAH WORTH ’86 | USF Health Communications

WHILE THE USF HEALTH College of Nursing works to expand its education program to grow the nursing workforce, it also is making great strides in scaling up its research program.

The research arm of the college is keeping pace through numerous efforts, including successfully recruiting faculty who have promising and impactful research underway, building new infrastructure to provide faculty the resources needed for today’s scientific demands, and threading the power of critical thinking and scientific inquiry throughout the curriculum so students will be inspired to take research into their careers. 

“This is a very exciting time for realizing our research aspirations, as we now have an incredible opportunity to hire faculty who can both educate a growing number of Bachelor of Science in nursing majors and expand our research impact — all of which will help ensure quality care for Floridians and beyond well into the future,” says Stephanie Marhefka, senior associate dean of research for the college.

Marhefka has been with USF Health since 2007 and was named the head of research in June 2021 by Usha Menon, dean of the College of Nursing and senior associate vice president for USF Health.

A researcher in her own right, Marhefka brings a strong foundation to her role, having published work on social determinants of health, improving HIV-related care and treatment, and promoting breastfeeding-friendly child-care environments. Currently, she holds a National Cancer Institute R01 grant as a behavioral scientist and mixed-methods researcher.

Marhefka’s primary charge in this role is to attract more grants and researchers and help the college stand out in interdisciplinary and nursing science. Both efforts will benefit students, the college and USF, which can ultimately help the college rise in rankings. Even more importantly, these efforts will help make life better for our communities through innovation, evidenced-based care models and implementation science.

“Research funding is an integral indicator of a top nursing program, and our faculty researchers are already conducting cutting-edge science with real-world implications for patients, nurses, nursing students and the greater communities around us,” she says. “Our goal is to grow that work, build and support opportunities for our faculty to gain more grant funding and increase our footprint on the national stage of high-impact nursing research.”

A solid foundation for growth

One of the first endeavors put in place by Menon prior to Marhefka joining the college was a framework the college could build on as it expands its research. This framework has four pillars:

  • Precision Science: Precision science considers humans’ physical and social environments and how those factors influence the risk, subsequent progression and response to treatment of serious diseases. Research topics can include symptom self-management among patients and informal caregivers (for example, cardiovascular disease, COPD, cancer, critical care, Type 1 and 2 diabetes), as well as microbiology, microbiome and psychoneuroimmunology.
  • Data Systems Science: Through data and systems science, as well as implementation science, faculty researchers develop and test data-driven solutions to health care issues. Focus areas include data mining and predictive analyses to identify and test factors that lead to improved patient experiences and better health outcomes.
  • Health Determinants Science: Complex circumstances, complex interactions and feedback loops call for complex solutions for health equity, special and vulnerable populations, healthy aging, health promotion and social factors (community, environmental). Faculty research seeks to advance the understanding of this multi-factor area and its relationships to health outcomes.
  • Implementation Science: As effective evidence-based strategies are widely available, the need to study the translation of findings to real-world settings has become imperative. Faculty study the science of dissemination (distribution of an intervention to intended settings) and implementation (process and success of integrating interventions into practice settings).

While already secure in a reputation for research in cancer support and prevention, cardiovascular disease, HIV and microbiome in newborns and infants, the college aims to greatly increase its scope and depth of scientific endeavors, Marhefka says.

“As we expand our research faculty, we are especially enthusiastic about growing in our work related to chronic condition prevention and treatment, which includes work at the bedside, the clinic and within other community settings, and often incorporates implementation science to help ensure our work is primed for translation into real-world practice,” she says. “Additionally, many of our projects include efforts to increase health equity and inclusion of groups that tend to be under-represented in research studies.”

Researchers of tomorrow

Successful nurse scientists have common backgrounds that are rich in opportunities for developing and conducting research projects, strong mentorship and access to both coursework and training that exposes them to the world of research inquiry. 

Marhefka says the USF Health College of Nursing is active in supporting each of those components for its students at all degree levels.

“This college offers even more than a great place for nursing students to further their careers,” she says. “We are also driven to provide research opportunities for every USF Health nursing student. This not only inspires many to conduct research across their careers and opens opportunities for trainees to someday become the nurse faculty who will train future generations, it also teaches important skills for inquiry, critical thinking and parsing out the evidence-based findings that will establish the standard of care for their patients.”

“Our scientific vision is that the USF Health College of Nursing will be the home of trailblazing nurse scientists as well as researchers from complementary disciplines who work together synergistically and with others across the university and the world to improve patient care and reduce health inequities,” Marhefka says. “Working in transdisciplinary teams is critical, as it enhances our innovations and bolsters the likelihood that our resulting solutions to health-related challenges will be implemented widely for the greater good.”

Research for students at all degree levels

Undergraduate: All undergraduates have access to research experiences, including experiences within their courses, as research assistants and through conferences and global opportunities. Students at the undergraduate level engage in the research process in three major ways: through an independent study, as part of the USF Honors program thesis, or working with a faculty mentor in a formal or informal research intern position. Independent study with expert faculty provides the opportunity for undergraduates to develop the intellectual stimulation to ask questions and formulate hypotheses in specific areas. Participating on research teams as assistants, students experience the research process, with some becoming published authors of scientific papers.  Students who have enrolled in the USF Judy Genshaft Honors College work closely with a College of Nursing faculty advisor to meet their project goals, which engages them in all aspects of the research process, and have additional opportunities and access to nurse scientists who help them prepare for a career in scientific inquiry.

Graduate: Graduate students have opportunities to participate on faculty research teams and are mentored to develop their own scientific questions. Through their coursework and faculty mentors, graduate students benefit from interdisciplinary experts across USF. 

Doctoral: The doctorate in nursing science program prepares nurse scientists to contribute to empirical knowledge and scholarship in nursing science through a range of health-related professional roles and in the context of diverse interdisciplinary teams. Graduates of the program provide leadership to community, professional and scientific organizations while simultaneously teaching the next generations of nurses and innovating throughout the scientific process. The knowledge gained from the research can then be translated into practice.

Research facilities and projects

Unique for nursing programs, the College of Nursing houses a 2,000-square-foot biobehavioral lab that contains state-of-the-art equipment for conducting assays, such as inflammatory markers, stress hormones, proteomics, microbiome and genetics.

Faculty collaborate with colleagues throughout USF Health to pursue a host of research projects related to these chronic conditions, as well as others:

  • Cancer: prevention (smoking cessation), screening, care, rehabilitation and survivorship (the college partners with Moffitt Cancer Center)
  • Diabetes: self-management and subsequent conditions caused by a disease or injury
  • Cardiovascular disease: rehabilitation, self-management and patient-provider communication
  • HIV: prevention, treatment and concomitant chronic condition management
  • Conditions in infancy: infant gut microbiome and omics, breastmilk as prevention, optimizing outcomes of premature birth/low birthweight, understanding causes of premature birth
  • Sleep disorders: mechanisms and treatment
  • Chronic pain: mechanisms and treatment