Partnering in a pandemic: students and faculty researched the impacts on nurses

photo of nurse with head covering holding N95 mask over her mouth

As the pandemic surged in the spring of 2020, college students saw their lives disrupted by COVID-19’s sudden emergence. Their classes moved to Zoom, study abroad programs were canceled, and many summer internships fell through.

But for Sophie Trachtenberg `21 and Mariah Lewis `22 there was a bright lining: the opportunity to collaborate with sociology professors Sara Shostak and Wendy Cadge on a time-sensitive research project on the impact of the pandemic on nurses and respiratory therapists in the Massachusetts General Hospital’s COVID-19 intensive care units.

Cadge had collaborated with nurses at MGH on previous projects. “When my nursing colleagues at MGH reached out in the early days of the pandemic, I wanted to help,” Cadge explained. “These nursing leaders thought research about nurses during the first surge would help the nurses cope and could inform subsequent nursing care. We reached out in the early days of the pandemic to see if we could help them learn about providers’ experiences.”

Both Cadge and Shostak felt that it was an urgent and important project and wanted to offer any support they could in the midst of the crisis; they also recognized that their project could benefit tremendously from student research assistance.

“This was a new experience for me, and I think it was the best thing I could have done,” said Trachtenberg. “I had always loved learning and being in the classroom, but this really took it a step above and challenged me.”

Classwork led to research opportunities

Trachtenberg, a psychology major, and Lewis, a psychology and sociology major, had both taken classes with Shostak, including Sociology of the Body and Health and Research Methods classes. Trachtenberg had also studied with Cadge and been a peer teaching assistant for Shostak. When Cadge and Shostak realized that they would need research assistants for this project, Shostak reached out to them.

“It felt like pure luck,” said Lewis, whose summer internship had fallen through. “Students hear all the time about how whatever discipline you do, you can still do research. It’s one thing to say that, it’s another to be a reality. To have the opportunity to be able to get a sense of what it was like for nurses on the front lines dealing with such an awful illness, to have that opportunity as an undergraduate student, was something I was not going to pass up.”

The opportunity to work with Trachtenberg and Lewis was especially relevant for Cadge who was collaborating at the time with Dorothy Hodgson, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, and Margaret Lynch, the first director of Undergraduate-Faculty Research Partnerships, to build the Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Collaborations. This effort helps to connect undergraduates who want to do research with faculty and provides the funding and support for such research for all students, regardless of financial need.

Threading stories together

Throughout the summer, Lewis and Trachtenberg scheduled interviews, delved into the data, and transcribed interviews with 16 nurses and four respiratory therapists who took care of patients with COVID-19 in the ICUs. They also joined a weekly phone call with the nursing leadership at the Massachusetts General Hospital, hearing powerful and emotionally-charged stories about how the nurses were navigating the extraordinary new demands of their work and coping with challenging experiences. In the fall, they started helping with data analysis and coding, applying what they had learned in their research methods classes. Their goal, Trachtenberg said, was to “thread people’s stories together, to figure out where there was common ground, and pinpoint where there were connections between nurses’ experiences.”

“We were conducting an exploratory study and trying to understand how healthcare providers had to adapt and change to meet the needs of this influx of very sick patients while working with a novel virus that they had never dealt with before,” Trachtenberg said. “The data was really, really rich and difficult to unpack. It was just a tumultuous time for the nurses, and you could hear the emotion in their voices when they spoke.”

The MGH-Brandeis research group — which includes leaders in nursing and respiratory therapy from MGH and the team from Brandeis — has published two papers, one on how frontline workers adapted to the new staffing models that allowed Mass General to increase capacity in its ICUs; and a second about how frontline providers perceived the racial inequalities they saw in the ICUs. Trachtenberg is the lead author on a third paper, currently under review, about the emotional experiences of the nurses and how they dealt with the challenges they faced during the first surge of the pandemic.

“It was an extraordinary privilege to partner with our colleagues at MGH to learn about the experiences of nurses and respiratory therapists in COVID-19 ICUs,” said Shostak. “Thanks to Sophie and Mariah’s support of this project, we were able to honor the stories of frontline providers and quickly move their important insights into the research literature.”

Research leads to a new path

Lewis had never before contemplated doing academic research, and says that the project helped her gain confidence and changed her undergraduate trajectory. Since then, she has served as a peer teaching assistant for Professor Shostak’s Sociology of the Body and Health course, completed other internships, and been accepted into Teach for America. She has also embarked on a sociology research project for her senior thesis.

“Being able to conduct this research junior year was really instrumental in helping me find other positions,” Lewis said. “If it had not been for Professor Shostak's kindness in reaching out to me to help with this COVID study, I wouldn't have felt as successful as I do now.“

“We reached out to Sophie and Mariah because they are excellent students, and had demonstrated exceptional writing skills and profound sensitivity to ethical issues,” Shostak said. “When students have strong research methods training, they can play an important role in faculty research projects.”

Trachtenberg, who graduated last May, went on to become a Presidential Fellow at Brandeis, a position designed to provide recent graduates with a unique, challenging, and in-depth window into how a complex organization operates. She says the COVID research project gave her the skills and knowledge to succeed in her role today. She also hopes to return to sociological research in the future.

“For me, the rewards go beyond the context of writing these papers,” she said. “I built great teamwork skills, learned how to communicate my ideas with others, and significantly improved my writing. And, most importantly, I’ve gained two mentors for life.”

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, Research

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