New nursing dean plans for multidisciplinary approach

Wednesday, May 25, 2016 - 6:01pm

The University of Michigan School of Nursing will welcome a new dean for the first time in 10 years following the Board of Regents' appointment of Patricia Hurn last Thursday. Hurn will replace Kathleen Potempa — who will remain at the University to focus on research and training of postdoctoral fellows — as she takes on the five-year position as dean August 1. 

Hurn is currently the vice chancellor for research and innovation at the University of Texas System and a research professor of neurobiology at the University of Texas at Austin. She received her Bachelor of Science in nursing from the University of Florida, her master's in nursing from the University of Washington and her Ph.D. in physiology from Johns Hopkins University.

Hurn said her multidisciplinary background will be strongly featured during her tenure at the University.

“I don’t belong to just one discipline,” Hurn said. “I started my career as a nurse, but I’ve been trained as a physiologist and a neuroscientist, and I’ve spent a lot of years just in research working with many, many disciplines. Since that’s how I learned and was educated, that’s what I will bring to my work as dean.”

Hurn, who said she was attracted to the University’s dedication to research, has previous ties to Michigan; she was born in the state and was also previously a visiting professor at the University. Hurn said she was ready to return to campus life after working as an administrator for several years, adding that the opening of a dean position in Ann Arbor could not have arrived at a more opportune moment for her.

“When the opportunity came up, what I thought was … the University of Michigan — it doesn’t get any better than that place,” she said. “(The University) is a marvelous school and I think that the students and faculty there have, from what I see, some real bonds that are extremely attractive, and I look forward to adding to those.”

Since she worked as a practicing nurse before entering academia, Hurn said her drive to research stems from her interactions with patients. She said that, as a young nurse, she was consistenly frustrated with the lack of means to help head injury and trauma patients — groups with high mortality rates. 

“We didn’t really have the knowledge to be able to save those people,” Hurn said. “And it wasn’t that I, the nurse, didn’t have it. Physicians didn’t have it. Pharmacists didn’t have it … we just needed to expand on what we knew — how to take care of patients that are very badly injured.”

“If you were doing something every day and you realize, ‘I don’t have the skill set to fix this problem,’ then you’d probably go get it, and that’s really all what it was about,” she continued.

Hurn then embarked on an academic career, during which she uncovered an entirely new branch in the field of stroke research. After noticing that strokes affect men and women differently, Hurn wondered whether or not the healing process differed for each sex before setting out to explore the uncharted territory in depth.

Based on her original work, research into stroke therapy now accounts for a difference between genders. Hurn said her keen eye and love for innovation allowed for her significant contribution to stroke research. 

“My interest in that sort of off-beat, not-ever-asked-before questions came from my personality, but it turned out to be extremely productive in research,” she said.

Hurn added that a passion for blending ideas and academic disciplines will be one of her central focuses as the new Nursing dean.

“My entire style is built strongly on collaboration,” she said. “I will look forward to not only collaborating with people within the School of Nursing and the administration, but I’m really looking forward to collaborating with the other deans and leadership of the University.”

For example, Hurn described a potential collaboration with the School of Music, Theatre & Dance as she recently designed a research project which explores how music alters mood and provides a different emotional and cognitive state. With potential grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense, she hopes to apply music therapy to the rehabilitation of war veterans affected by posttraumatic stress disorder.

“There’s interfaces between the musician and the nurse,” she said. “We have a shared interest in therapy for patients.”

Hurn also expressed interest in working with the University’s data informatics researchers, along with various medical and science departments.

In addition to interdisciplinary cooperation, Hurn said she wants to focus on student and faculty diversity within the School of Nursing.

“(Diversity is) absolutely vital,” she said. “You can’t do those kinds of collaborations and growth and excellence unless you’ve got lots of different kinds of people at the table.”

“Nursing at all levels needs to be very involved in how healthcare is delivered — how we do research in our healthcare system,” Hurn said. “It’s going to take a team to be able to move healthcare to a position that serves our patients well, is more affordable and really produces the outcomes-orientation that we need.”

Hurn also stressed the need for greater risk-taking in higher education, which she said is declining due to economic uncertainties and caution on the part of university administrators.

“We’re facing a time where we've got to take some calculated risks and not be risk-averse, but to do things that would really position us for the short-term and the long-term future," she said. “If you’re not taking some risks — some good, thoughtful ones based on all your talents — then maybe you’re not really … doing your job to the fullest.”