Emory Report
October 23, 2006
Volume 59, Number 8


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October 23, 2006
Double vision

BY haley curtis stevens

Sue Donaldson, Emory’s new distinguished professor of nursing and interdisciplinary science, has spent her career combining dual passions as a nurse and a physiologist. With her fearless approach to cross-disciplinary research, Donaldson is striving to foster more innovative collaborations among faculty across the University.

“Science, in nursing and physiology, is my intellectual core, but professional nursing is my soul, and I wouldn’t want to give up either,” said Donaldson. Her appointment is primary in the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing and secondary in the School of Medicine’s physiology department.

Her excitement grows as she explains that “nursing is about people, their families, what they are going through, and what needs to be done to enhance treatment of illness and wellness…. Nursing practice is bound by what is already known to be therapeutic and the current scope of professional practice. However, science is about discovery and the intellectual freedom to envision a different future,” Donaldson said.

In her career, Donaldson has published more than 50 scholarly papers and won several national research and service awards, including recognition from the National Institutes of Health National Center as a Nursing Research Distinguished Scholar. In addition, she has been elected a fellow of the American Academy of Nursing and a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

Donaldson’s work includes the fields of heart contraction and cardiac health, aging, injury and physical activity, exercise/sports medicine and muscle recovery. In her research, Donaldson focuses on understanding the cellular and molecular basis of skeletal muscle function and adaptation. Her most recent project examines the adaptive state of leg skeletal muscle in human stroke survivors with chronic mobility impairment and gait.

Donaldson began her career path at an early age. By high school, she knew that she wanted to become a scientist. “I fell in love with it right then and there in 10th-grade science class,” Donaldson said.
Her science teacher knew Donaldson had an aptitude for mathematics and science and encouraged her to get an advanced degree in physiology. She warned Donaldson, however, that funding might be difficult to acquire for basic science research, and recommended that she consider obtaining an additional degree in a health profession.

Following her advice, Donaldson received her bachelor’s degree in nursing while on a full academic scholarship at Wayne State University in 1965. Donaldson stayed there to complete her master’s of nursing a year later. For her thesis, Donaldson immersed herself in her first hands-on experience in scientific research.
“Most everyone did a survey for their thesis. Not me. I set up a physiology lab in the Wayne State University College of Nursing and conducted an experimental study,” said Donaldson.

After earning her master’s degree, Donaldson ventured cross-country to the University of Washington in Seattle where she obtained a doctoral degree in physiology and biophysics as a fellow of the federally funded United States Public Health Service Nurse Scientist Program. It was here, through interdisciplinary science seminars, that Donaldson first learned to appreciate and ponder science, both as a whole and in its different specialties.

“The Nurse Scientist Program allowed me to consider the range of behavioral and biological sciences while I was becoming a physiologist and biophysicist,” Donaldson said. “It got me thinking about the philosophical side of science and the unique aspects of each discipline. I was fascinated.”

After her Ph.D., Donaldson received her first faculty appointment at the University of Washington and—in only four short years—became associate professor in the schools of medicine and nursing. Holding dual faculty positions in both physiology and nursing departments has been something she has done ever since.
Donaldson later went to Rush University for six years and then onto the University of Minnesota for 10 years, where she was professor of physiology and the Cora Meidl Siehl Chair for Nursing Research, the first nationally endowed research chair of its kind in nursing.

In 1994, Donaldson joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins University, where she was a professor of physiology in the School of Medicine and professor of nursing in the School of Nursing. At Hopkins, she served as dean of the School of Nursing for seven years and ran a campaign that raised an impressive $32 million for the school and for the first building on campus solely dedicated to the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing.
After some time, though, she was ready for a change and found Emory to be just what she was looking for.
“I think Emory is a perfect match for me. It has respectful values and I resonate with that,” Donaldson said. “I like the University Strategic Plan, and the Nell Hodgson School of Nursing is very global. I am very interested in being part of the Predictive Health Initiative here at Emory.

“Plus, the campus is gorgeous. It’s like walking in a park. It makes you want to be on campus,” she laughed.“I absolutely love it here.”

In her spare time, Donaldson likes to play the violin, an instrument that she has been practicing since grade school, and to sew.

And sewing together various disciplines across campus is just what she plans to do. With her dual specialty, Donaldson sees science and nursing as just one of the many links that Emory-campus researchers can make.

“A well-educated scientist should know more than the essence of one discipline.I want to link the science in nursing to other basic and biomedical sciences, and Emory has tremendous resources to do it,” she said.
Donaldson feels researchers who collaborate across fields can provide new insight into scientific problems.
“It’s as simple as taking the time to talk to other researchers, listening to their questions and answers, and noticing other faculty on campus who would be good collaborators,” said Donaldson, who sees interdisciplinary research as an opportunity for unique discoveries and an exciting venue for scientific training.

“It is very important to build bridges within academia so that we are prepared to go to the world beyond and address issues in their full context,” Donaldson said. “Academic science has a responsibility beyond building the knowledge of separate disciplines that includes the shaping of interdisciplinary knowledge that is useful to society.”

The benefits of this cross-disciplinary research, she noted, are huge.

“It is a payoff to people and to humankind and to the government, which invests in science,” said Donaldson.
When asked about the secret to her success, Donaldson accredits it to good timing, excellent mentors, passion and a positive attitude.Donaldson added with a smile, “I would do everything over again.”