Jump-Starting Research Careers

Are you a nursing student who is interested in the “why” and “how” of health care issues? Do you frequently wonder if there is a better, faster, more productive way to accomplish nursing tasks? Would you like to play a direct role in helping to eliminate minority health disparities? If so, a career as a nurse researcher may be just what you are looking for.

A research career provides exciting opportunities to develop new knowledge and influence future nursing practice. If you are interested in pursuing a teaching career in academia, research is an important expectation of the faculty role. But whatever your long-term goals may be, gaining hands-on experience in the research process while you are still in nursing school can help you lay the foundation for a successful future as a research professional.

To encourage more minority individuals to pursue careers in health care research, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) offers an exciting program, Research Supplements for Underrepresented Minorities. Although it was launched in 1989, many potential student researchers may be unaware of this program, which provides monetary support for minority students to work with researchers whose studies are currently funded by NIH. The student becomes part of the research team and receives research training and mentoring. High school, undergraduate and graduate students are eligible. The program is also available to support post-doctoral training.

Making the Match

If the Research Supplements for Underrepresented Minorities program sounds interesting to you, your first step should be to visit NIH’s web site at http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/pa-files/PA-01-079.html. There you’ll find everything you need to know about the program’s eligibility requirements, application procedures and funding levels.

Next, you need to find an NIH-funded researcher to hook up with. Be sure to do this early in your schooling, because participation in the program generally lasts for at least two years. To locate nurse researchers with active NIH grants, access the Web page of the National Institute of Nursing Research (one of the NIH institutes) at www.nih.gov/ninr/. Once you have found a researcher whose work interests you, talk with him or her to see if there is a good fit between the two of you and to determine whether you will be able to work well together.

Once the student and nurse researcher are matched up, the researcher should consult the NINR staff prior to completing the application process in order to receive suggestions for successfully applying to the program. The phone number to call is (301) 496-0207.

The application includes portions to be completed by both the researcher and the student. A step-by-step guide to application procedures can be found on the NIH Web site (http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/pa-files/PA-01-079.html). The structure and goals of the research training need to be clearly presented, along with evidence that the student will develop research skills as a result of participating in the project. Accepted and rejected applicants are notified in approximately eight weeks.

Danica’s Story

When I was growing up, I always thought nursing was limited to the clinical setting. My first exposure to nursing in an academic setting exploded that myth. In the spring of my senior year, my high school placed me as an intern at the University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing. Originally I was dismayed; as an aspiring pediatrician, I did not think a school of nursing was the place for me. But I accepted the internship and the following summer I participated in a research apprentice position with the Minority High School Nursing Research Experience, a program funded by the NIH.


This initial exposure to research opened my eyes to an aspect of nursing that I never knew existed. During my research apprenticeship, I worked with Dr. Gayle Timmerman, who had received an NINR-funded grant for a study on “Dieting, Deprivation, and Nonpurge Binge Eating in Women.” This experience inspired me to pursue a career in nursing rather than medicine. I chose the University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing to earn my nursing degree, not only because it is one of the top nursing programs in the country but also because I had established good working relationships with some of the faculty and staff.

During my sophomore year of nursing school, Dr. Timmerman asked if I would be interested in applying for another NIH-funded program designed to promote minority involvement in research–the Research Supplements for Underrepresented Minorities program. As part of the program, I would be an integral part of her research team while receiving research training. It sounded like a wonderful opportunity for me to gain further research experience, while receiving a salary to help with my school expenses. 

Since receiving the supplement, I have learned about the research process from the inside out. Through intensive training based on role playing and case study scenarios, I learned how to conduct telephone interviews to screen potential study participants and collect data during initial and exit meetings. My experiences in the community collecting data taught me how to interact with unfamiliar people in unfamiliar surroundings. This has helped me hone my interpersonal communication skills, an essential asset for a successful research career.

I have also learned how to work as a member of a research team. I attended team meetings where we problem-solved and brainstormed. This helped me learn that each team member’s input is important because each of us has something unique to contribute to the study. Knowing how to be a team player is another invaluable skill that I will carry throughout my life.

Participating in the Research Supplements for Underrepresented Minorities program also helped me develop and hone my technology skills. I received training in several computer programs used to conduct the study. For example, I use Food Processor almost daily to calculate participants’ daily caloric and fat intake by entering data from daily food diaries. I have created Excel databases to make computations easier. For example, I created a spreadsheet that computes the average caloric and fat intake for the 14 days that the participants keep the food diaries. I also use SPSS, a statistical analysis software program, to enter and analyze data.

In addition, I learned to formulate and answer my own research questions based on the data from the study, which helped sharpen my analytical skills. I presented my preliminary findings at a poster session at an undergraduate research symposium. This gave me the opportunity to see the entire research process from beginning to end while learning how to explain the data and answer questions about the study. This was valuable practice for future presentations and for building my networking skills.

Attending research conferences was still another important aspect of my research training. I traveled to Nashville to attend the Society of Behavioral Medicine’s annual meeting, where I heard presentations by researchers from numerous disciplines that focused on health and behavior. I was even able to have an expert consultation with Norman B. Anderson, PhD, former director of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research at NIH, who offered suggestions about various NIH programs geared towards nursing. He applauded me for getting an early start in my research career and encouraged me to continue in the path I had chosen.      

I also participated in a summer research institute sponsored by the NINR-funded Center for Health Promotion Research at my nursing school. This conference focused on how to prepare grant proposals, grant-writing tips and other key issues about seeking funding and conducting research. Here, too, I gained information that will help me throughout the rest of my career.

All of these intensive training experiences have increased my comfort level with research and provided me with essential research skills. Most important of all, I have been able to see first-hand the enormous importance of nursing research, especially in the area of minority health issues and the need to have more minorities conducting research.

Because of my participation in the Research Supplements for Underrepresented Minorities program, I plan to become a nurse researcher and faculty member. The solid experience in research I have gained will give me the edge I need to transition smoothly from undergraduate to graduate school, as well as the confidence of knowing that I am well-prepared to be a successful nurse researcher with a long and thriving career.

Authors’ note: Experiences in the Research Supplements for Underrepresented Minorities program described in this article were supported by the National Institute of Nursing Research grant R15NR04481-01A1S1.