PhD Nurse Profiles

These PhD-prepared nurses are contributing to RWJF’s goal of building a Culture of Health.

Beverly Malone, PhD, RN, FAAN

Beverly Malone, PhD, RN, FAAN, one of the most powerful nurse leaders in the country, learned the art of healing from the ground up—as a young girl in rural Kentucky who helped her great-grandmother, the daughter of a slave, heal the people around her.

Malone recalls picking locally grown medicinal plants for her great-grandmother in the wilds of the Kentucky prairie, helping her great-grandmother mix them together to create powerful herbal medicines, and using them to help return the sick to good health.

Inspired by her great-grandmother and her seemingly miraculous ability to heal, Malone developed a passion for health and health care. “I just wanted to do that thing that I saw her do so well,” she says.
In 1966 Malone enrolled in the nursing school at the University of Cincinnati and soon after won a scholarship to finish her undergraduate work and earn a master’s degree in psychiatric nursing. A mentor saw leadership potential in the young nurse scholar and encouraged her to pursue a doctoral degree. “My mentor said, ‘If you’re not interested in being a leader, you shouldn’t be here,’” Malone recalls. “I had to make a decision about whether to be a leader. I thought she would get rid of me if I decided against it, so I said to myself, ‘OK. I’ll be a leader.’”

And that is precisely what she has become. Malone beat out some 400 other applicants for a slot in the University of Cincinnati’s doctoral program in clinical psychology and began her coursework two weeks after her second child was born.

She graduated in 1981 and began ascending the ladder of nursing leadership, becoming president of the American Nurses Association in 1996; deputy assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 1999; general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing of the United Kingdom in London in 2001; and chief executive officer of the National League for Nursing in 2007. She also serves as a National Advisory Committee member for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholars program.

Now in her fifth decade in the profession, Malone is focusing on one of the biggest challenges of her professional life: implementing the recommendations of a transformational report on the future of the nursing profession that was released by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in 2010. She is focusing specifically on the report’s recommendations to advance nurse education, enhance the diversity of the profession, and cultivate future nurse leaders—all key ways, as she sees it, to help her carry out her great-grandmother’s legacy of healing those around her.

Terrah Foster Akard, PhD, RN, CPNP

When Terrah Foster Akard was a doctoral student in nursing, she heard about a child with a terminal illness who had collected egg-shaped pantyhose containers while he was in the hospital. After he died, his family members found the containers hidden in different places in his bedroom—one under the pillow, for example, and another behind the dresser.

When they opened each plastic egg, they found a special message that the boy had written for them. It was as if he had imagined himself as a kind of Easter Bunny, but one who left behind messages about the importance of memory and the endurance of love rather than candy and toys.

The story moved Akard, and inspired her to devote her career to helping kids and families cope with the emotional and psychological trauma at the end of a child’s life. Legacy projects just might help them do that, she thought. “I was really intrigued by kids with life-threatening illnesses,” she says. “I thought they did things and said things differently than other kids. It just seemed to me that they had a different understanding of life than other kids.”

An assistant professor of nursing and medicine at Vanderbilt University, Akard, PhD, RN, CPNP, developed an interest in palliative care early in life. When she was a young girl, her baby sister died from a rare kidney disease. Later on, she learned that her college softball coach had a child with a life-threatening illness. Akard and her teammates would accompany the coach to the local children’s hospital, volunteering their time with pediatric patients.

Since then, helping other children and families cope with terminal illness has become her life’s mission.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s in nursing, Akard worked as a nurse practitioner in a primary care clinic where she cared for children with and without terminal illnesses. A few years later, she decided to specialize in pediatric palliative care, making it the focus of her nursing research. She enrolled in a doctoral program in nursing science at Vanderbilt and studied the bereavement processes experienced by parents and siblings of children who died of cancer. She found that bereaved family members perceived that some ill children yearned to communicate feelings with loved ones and sought tangible ways to be remembered.

Akard built on that study with a research project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholars program that allowed children with advanced cancer to create personalized videos about their lives to give to loved ones.

Studies have shown that such “legacy” projects help adults cope with terminal disease, and the benefits can go beyond the patient. But there is little research into the effects of similar projects—such as scrapbooking, songwriting, and hand molds—for children.

“In adult populations, researchers have found that these kinds of projects have many benefits for both patients and their loved ones,” Akard says. “We wanted to find out just what this kind of legacy project can mean for kids.” Akard and her team learned that their newly developed legacy-making intervention via digital storytelling for children with cancer was feasible and showed promise to improve coping and adjustment.

She recently received a grant from the National Institute of Nursing Research to develop and test a web-based legacy intervention to expand her potential impact and ultimately improve coping and adjustment for pediatric palliative care populations.

Gloria McNeal, PhD, ACNS-BC, FAAN

As a nurse, a former naval officer, and an educator, Gloria J. McNeal, PhD, ACNS-BC, FAAN, has spent a life in the service of others. Recognized for her prior military experience, she was recently awarded more than $1 million for her grant proposal to prepare corpsmen and medics to earn baccalaureate degrees in nursing.

She is also among the second cohort of 11 grantees selected by the Health Resources and Services Administration, from a nationwide applicant pool, to receive funding for a Veterans’ Bachelor of Science Degree in Nursing program. Her project will admit 20 corpsmen and medics twice a year into an innovative nursing curriculum of study at National University. The project will award academic credit for prior military experience and education to accelerate progression through the nursing program.

She took her first footsteps on that journey of service decades ago, when she decided to follow her mother into the nursing profession. She enrolled in the nursing school at Villanova University in Pennsylvania and, after graduating, became an officer in the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps. A few years later she returned to academia to get her master’s degree in nursing at the University of Pennsylvania, and studied under the internationally renowned nurse leader Claire M. Fagin, RN, PhD, FAAN.

Under the mentorship of several nurse leaders, she mastered the art of writing and grantsmanship, authoring more than 120 publications and earning nearly $12 million in grant funding over the course of her academic career. She has risen through the ranks of nursing education, holding faculty and administrative positions at Rutgers, Thomas Jefferson University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. She also is an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Executive Nurse Fellows program (2007-2010).

In 2010, she became founding dean of the Mervyn M. Dymally School of Nursing at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles. And in 2013, she became dean of the School of Health and Human Services at National University in San Diego.

Serving the poor has been one of McNeal’s key professional goals. One of her signature projects is the design and implementation of a medical clinic on wheels that provides free preventive and primary care services to the poor. McNeal ran mobile clinics in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, serving thousands of patients and reducing the number of visits to area emergency rooms. The clinics also served as a practice site for nursing and medical students and faculty.

At Charles Drew University, McNeal established an accelerated master’s degree program to train students with bachelor’s degrees in other fields to become nurses. In addition, she implemented a graduate family nurse practitioner growing the total enrollment to more than 300 students during her tenure.

At National University, McNeal plans to continue her research in tele-health care, a new application that uses technological innovations to transfer health information remotely. This innovative approach facilitates the daily monitoring of medical disorders in “the delivery of acute and chronic nursing care in settings without walls,” she says.

Four decades after she first joined the nursing profession, McNeal is still living out her mission.

Bob Atkins, PhD, RN, FAAN

Bob Atkins, PhD, RN has devoted his adult life to children. He spent the early part of his career as a school nurse in East Camden, N.J., a poverty-stricken urban area just a few miles from his suburban hometown in Cherry Hill. And he later co-founded a youth development program for underserved teenagers that blended meaningful activities like tree planting and soccer with academic work and included an annual summer retreat in Vermont.

He even spent his first date with his future wife surrounded by kids: He took her ice-skating with about three dozen members of his youth development program on Christmas Eve years ago. She loved it—and him, and they’re now raising two boys of their own.

So it hit Atkins hard when one of the children in his youth development program died suddenly of a brain tumor. The boy had complained of headaches, and surely had experienced other problems such as changes in vision and mood, Atkins says, but he was never seen by a health care provider. “What went wrong?” Atkins asks. “How did he fall through gaps?”

It’s the kind of question Atkins has asked himself ever since his career began.

As a school nurse in East Camden, Atkins got a good look into the relationship between class and health. He noticed that while the low-income students that he cared for were often treated for life-threatening and chronic health problems, they weren’t always treated for sub-acute problems like ringworm, tooth decay, and poor vision—even though they too affect children’s health, mood and ability to learn. That’s largely because low-income parents encounter numerous obstacles in addressing their children’s sub-acute health problems: They work non-traditional hours, hold multiple jobs, or face linguistic, cultural, or educational barriers to care.

Now an associate professor of nursing and childhood studies at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, Atkins researches the effects of class on children’s health. He is an alumnus of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholars program (2008-2011) and director of RWJF’s New Jersey Health Initiatives, a statewide grantmaking program that supports community-based service projects.
“My experience living in Camden and working with youth in Camden as a school nurse and co-founder of a youth development program sparked my interest in the influence of high poverty environments on the life chances of youth,” he said. “What we learned is that poverty matters because poverty affects where people live.”