Undergraduate research changed their outlook on what a nursing career can be

During the second semester of their sophomore year, Rachel Solomon and Abigail Caron boarded a plane to Seattle, compliments of Northeastern’s School of Nursing. Their destination was the Annual Research Meeting of AcademyHealth, where they would present their research on the correlation between serious mental illness and readmissions to medical-surgical units. Their review of the exiting literature was published in the November 2018 issue of General Hospital Psychiatry.

You read that right: Sophomores—scholarly research—published in a national scientific journal.

“People at the conference kept asking where we were in grad school, and we kept on telling them, ‘No, we’re sophomores at Northeastern,’” said Caron, N’21.

An early start

For Solomon and Caron, their unexpected journey into the world of research began in January of their freshman year. They were at a faculty dinner for students returning from the NUin (semester abroad) program and happened to be seated at a table with Nancy Hanrahan, who was then dean of the School of Nursing.

During dinner, Hanrahan talked about her passion for undergraduate research, and both students went home and immediately emailed her about their interest. Under Hanrahan’s guidance, they were soon conducting an exhaustive literature review on readmission rates to medical-surgical units among people with serious mental illness.

“She taught us what nursing research means and why it’s important,” said Solomon, N’20. “We had no experience, so it was really important to have a mentor.”

“She was a great mentor,” added Caron. “Dr. Hanrahan told us that when we graduate, we’d have a paper published in our name. Our response was, ‘Yeah, right.’”

A year and a half later, they were presenting their research at the Seattle conference.

During the intervening 18 months, they reviewed 896 articles, narrowed those down to the 11 most relevant, then scoured the data to determine whether readmission rates were higher among the mentally ill, compared to the general population. What they found was that those with serious mental illness are 1.38 times more likely to be readmitted—a finding that highlights a significant cost to society, both economically and in terms of health equity.

Their paper recommended additional research to 1) define the specific conditions increase the likelihood of readmission, and 2) devise ways to improve discharge planning so that those with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression will be more likely to adhere to those plans.

The power of co-op

Their first co-op was ideally timed to provide personal insight into their research. Both Solomon and Caron worked on medical-surgical units at prestigious Boston hospitals where they experienced the challenge of mental illness first hand.

What they concluded was that discharge plans often don’t take into account how mental illness can affect a patient’s compliance with follow-up appointments, antibiotic regimes, and limits on physical activity.

“Discharge plans are often cookie-cutter documents that don’t take into consideration the fact that these people have serious obstacles,” said Solomon.

She recalled one man who was having a manic episode when he arrived at the hospital for elective shoulder surgery.

“A week or two after the surgery, he came back with an infection and a dislocated shoulder,” she said. “He came back in five times in six months and eventually needed a shoulder replacement.”

Solomon said her experience with undergraduate research has changed her career tragectory.

“It really got me thinking about getting a PhD,” she said “I realized that I love to do research. When we entered this program, we thought we were going to be bedside nurses, and that’s all there was. We had no idea that the field of nursing research could be so exciting.

“This is why I came to Northeastern. We would never have had this kind of opportunity elsewhere.”

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