Florida Blue Grant Propels Stellar Student into Ph.D. Pipeline

By Maggie Van Dyke

Florida Blue Grant Propels Stellar Student into Ph.D. Pipeline

By Maggie Van Dyke
Student Profile: Heather Sanchez, B.S.N. ’18, Nursing Ph.D. student

From the intricacies of cardiac care to the impact of social support on disease management, questions excite Ph.D. student Heather Sanchez, B.S.N. ’18, particularly when they point to ways of improving nursing practice and patient care. That natural curiosity drove her to participate in a health disparities research program for minority nursing students as an undergraduate at the School of Nursing and Health Studies (SONHS). heather

One of the studies Sanchez worked on during the 10-week summer program funded by the Florida Blue Foundation focused on minority women age 50 and older living with HIV (MOWLH). She helped survey a sample of 133 MOWLH about the social support they felt they would receive from their families and communities if they revealed their HIV status. While most thought their families would support them, 52 percent didn’t think they’d receive community support, 49 percent thought people would avoid them because of their disease, and 57 percent thought community members would be afraid of being infected.

Rosina Cianelli, associate professor and director of the M.S.N.-D.N.P. program, was the study’s principal investigator and one of Sanchez’s faculty mentors that summer. “Heather was professional and charismatic in interviewing the HIV study participants, and they were delighted with her,” says Cianelli. “She was proactive, too. If something needed to be done, Heather was the first to do it, and the result was perfect.”

Sanchez’s first foray into nursing research solidified her desire to become a nurse scientist. A clinical rotation in Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Cardiac Critical Care Unit led her to choose cardiac care as her subspecialty. She loved the challenge that patients facing complex, urgent health problems presented. Not surprising for a student whose work faculty routinely describe as “outstanding” and “meticulous.” 

Directly after graduation, Sanchez entered the Ph.D. in Nursing program at the SONHS—in part to keep answering questions the study raised in her mind as to whether community education about HIV might increase social support for people with the disease. 

“It’s so important to make sure people, especially those with chronic conditions, have someone in their lives to turn to when they need help,” says Sanchez. “We do a great job of treating people physically, treating the disease, but there’s this whole other element to us as human beings. People with chronic conditions have times of remission and times of exacerbation; they need someone there to help or guide them.” Professor Victoria Mitrani met Sanchez in her Quantitative Methods class last year and soon saw her “tremendous promise as a nurse researcher.”

“Heather has a strong grasp of concepts,” she says. “Like a good researcher, she pays careful attention to detail and proactively thinks through the next steps for answering questions.” 

Sanchez works as a research assistant with Mitrani for the Center for Latino Research Opportunities. Mitrani is also collaborating with her on a proposal for a National Research Service Fellowship from the National Institute of Nursing Research and says Sanchez has what it takes to be successful for this highly competitive award.

Meanwhile, Sanchez remains drawn to questions about women’s health and social support inspired by the ones raised in the HIV study. “I think that happens with studies,” she says. “You answer or partially answer one question, and that ends up opening up a whole bunch of other questions you get excited to pursue.”

Her advice to fellow students? “Don’t be afraid to go outside of the box and look at the different ways you can apply nursing,” she says. “My SONHS instructors have always emphasized the importance of taking advantage of every opportunity we are given, to be as curious as we can, ask many questions and absorb as much as we can.”

Originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of Heartbeat magazine, page 36