When Alexa DeVito was accepted to the Solomont School of Nursing, she was offered a $4,000 Immersive Scholarship to do research with a faculty member, undertake a supervised community experience, or study abroad.
She chose to do research with Nursing Assoc. Prof. Ainat Koren, and by the time DeVito had finished her sophomore year, she was a co-author on a research paper that was being submitted for publication. She had also found a faculty mentor.
“I’ve really enjoyed working with her because any time I had a question, she was really helpful, walking me through the research process,” DeVito says. “And any time I had a question about nursing, about graduate school or the program in general, or even from a class, I felt like I could go to her. It was really great to have the nursing professor connection.”
DeVito, a first-generation college student from Stoneham, Massachusetts, loves working with children, so she has decided to pursue pediatric nursing.
She chose UMass Lowell after a tour that included the simulation labs in the Health and Social Sciences Building. She also learned that, with an additional year of study, she could earn a master’s degree that would qualify her to become a pediatric nurse practitioner.
“With the simulation labs, it’s kind of like working in a hospital, but you don’t have the pressure of working on an actual patient. You can practice those skills without that pressure,” she says. “Also, the ‘4+1’ program ... was definitely a big factor.”
DeVito used her Immersive Scholarship to work with Koren on a study about children’s health, helping to develop a survey for parents on whether childhood obesity increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, when most children were learning at home and unable to participate in activities such as dance, sports, or playing with friends.
Koren kept her on as a research assistant in the fall for a study of what nurses were saying in professional Facebook groups during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. They worked with another nursing professor and two faculty members and a graduate student in computer science.
The computer science team “scraped” comments from the Facebook groups, stripped them of personal identifying information, and then worked with the nursing researchers to analyze them thematically as the pandemic progressed over time.
DeVito went through all the data and picked out comments for the research paper that best represented each theme.
“I learned a lot about the whole research process. I got a lot out of reading the graphs, learning how to go through data, and figuring out what was better for the project,” she says. “I have a research class next semester, and I feel like I’ll be really well prepared for that.”
She also learned more about her chosen profession, as she reviewed how nurses all over the country had coped when confronted with a disease that no one knew how to treat – while battling their own fears about infecting family members or contracting it themselves.
She was heartened to see some more upbeat comments, especially as personal protective equipment became more plentiful, the first surge of cases subsided, and nurses learned how to care for COVID patients more effectively.
“Seeing some positives was good. I saw a lot of nurses picking each other up and saying, ‘Stay strong,’” she says.
DeVito plans to stay involved in Koren’s research as long as she can. Koren’s latest project is leading a center that is assisting in clinical trials of new, rapid COVID testing equipment.