From molecules to the bedside

Forefront | Summer 2021

How donor support is shaping the field of nursing

By Carey Skinner Moss

Wearing face masks, Associate Dean for Research Ron Hickman (left) and PhD alumna Julia O'Brien pose for a photo in the HEC.
Professor Ronald Hickman Jr. with PhD alumna and mentee Julia O'Brien.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the United States will need another 1.1 million nurses by 2022. But the shortage goes beyond the bedside. Nurse scientists are needed to develop and test interventions to improve patient health.

“Donor support is critical. Research is critical,” said Joachim Voss, PhD, ACRN, FAAN. Voss is the director of the PhD program at Case Western Reserve University’s Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing and the Independence Foundation Professor in Nursing Education. 

Of particular interest to Voss is the new Derry Ann Moritz Scholarship—a unique opportunity for nursing school PhD candidates whose dissertations focus on palliative or end of life care. Moritz (NUR ‘58) established this scholarship in honor of her friend Barbara Daly, PhD, RN (NUR ‘72), a Case Western Reserve Distinguished University Professor Emerita and the Gertrude Perkins Oliva Professor Emerita of Oncology Nursing whose life’s work has focused on addressing the unique challenges that come with treating critically and chronically ill patients.

“Palliative and end of life care don’t typically receive a lot of attention from funders,” Voss shared, “and when they do, support is often focused on a specific disease, such as cancer.”

While disease-specific research is important, the wide scope of the Moritz scholarship will allow for a greater variety of diseases and circumstances to be studied, which benefits patients and scientists alike.

PhD students can leave the school knowing they have contributed to meaningful research—and that they will have their choice of career opportunities.

Opening doors

“We [as faculty] are not doing our jobs unless our graduates get jobs,” Voss emphasized, “but a PhD is a key that opens many doors.” Nurses with PhDs can apply their expertise as policy makers, design cutting-edge pharmaceutical supplies, become faculty members at nursing schools, or continue vital research.

For Julia O’Brien, PhD (CWR ‘14; GRS ‘21, nursing and advanced quantitative methodologies), the doors are open wide post-graduation.

O’Brien received the Joyce M. Stielau Award in spring 2021 for her research on sickle cell disease and social determinants of health. The late Joyce M. Stielau was a nurse anesthesiologist, devoted hospital volunteer and philanthropist. The research award she established enabled O’Brien to collect data from a larger sample size during the pandemic, in addition to offering a raffle for participants.

“Without awards like this, it would be difficult to complete these projects,” said O’Brien. “When you’re studying a less common disease, one that affects approximately 100,000 [Americans], finding resources can be difficult, especially as a graduate student. This support allows someone like me to move forward in my career and hopefully be able to give back one day to Case Western Reserve, to the nursing profession and to the broader patient community.”

O’Brien began her undergraduate studies at the nursing school with the intention of practicing in a clinical setting, but changed course because of the mentorship she received. “There were mentors at Case Western Reserve who were willing to take me under their wing—and not just to give me a job doing a little number crunching,” she reflected. During a research retrospective, for example, faculty members took O’Brien to an outpatient clinic at University Hospitals to meet patients with sickle cell disease.

“It helped me understand where there were health disparities among this population, and that is part of what made me realize there was a lot of important work to be done,” O’Brien remarked on the experience. “I certainly hope to be that person for students moving forward.”

O’Brien is now pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh, where she will build on the research supported by the Stielau award to study technology-related interventions for adults and adolescents with sickle cell disease. She hopes the impact of the resources will be applicable for many patients with chronic pain.

Solving today’s most pressing issues

The Stielau award and the Moritz scholarship are two of three new donor-funded opportunities available to PhD students.

The third—the Donna Algase Dissertation Award—grants funding for early-stage research in the field of eldercare. And that research is of particular importance now with a rapidly aging population.

As of 2019, 71 million Americans were over the age of 65—the highest number in the nation’s history. And with better and more accessible health care, that number is expected to continue rising and, along with it, the health care needs of this population.

“These young people, through the Algase, Moritz and Stielau gifts, can really make a meaningful impact on palliative care, on eldercare and on nursing science in general,” said Ronald Hickman Jr., PhD, RN (CWR ‘00; NUR ‘02, ‘06, ‘13; GRS ‘08, nursing), the school’s associate dean of research and the Ruth M. Anderson Professor. “Most times we think about nurses caring for people at the bedside, but there’s also a group of nurse scientists generating new knowledge that we all benefit from. Donna Algase is interested in understanding the molecular basis as well. So these awards are truly funding work from molecules to the bedside, which I think is fascinating.”

A 40-year victory

Donna L. (Muszynski) Algase, PhD (GRS '88, nursing) has waited a long time for nursing science to be truly valued for its contributions to the field of medicine. “Nursing has always been kind of an underdog in a lot of ways,” she commented. Algase’s work is in the area of dementia and behavioral problems, specifically the troubling issue of wandering.

“There is some research into wayfinding and how the brain operates to encode that information, but very little research has been done on the molecular basis of [wandering],” Algase said. She first started this research about 40 years ago and, even though she was awarded a grant to study the phenomenon, her theories were mocked by a pharmacologist she worked with. “It was insulting, not to me personally, but to nursing, period.”

Then last year she was approached by a pharmaceutical company to be a consultant. They secured the rights to sell a cardiac medication developed in Japan that, in some anecdotal reports, showed a decrease in wandering behavior for patients with dementia.

“This company looked me up after almost 10 years of retirement, and my work was still relevant. So it came full circle, from a pharmacologist dismissing my research to a pharmaceutical company contacting me 40 years later to help them evaluate this potential treatment. That was incredible to me,” she chuckled.

Giving back to shape the future

Algase, like O’Brien, was inspired by the mentorship and leadership at CWRU. Even after joining the faculty at the University of Michigan, Algase maintained a close connection to her alma mater and received the nursing school’s Outstanding Alumni Award in 2004. “It felt like I never really left, in a fashion—that there was a part of me still there,” she said. “So when I had the good fortune to make this kind of donation, Case Western Reserve was certainly high on my list.”

Seventy percent of the school’s graduate-level students receive scholarship or fellowship assistance, with donor support proving vital in reducing barriers to access for students—especially at a time when the field is experiencing a declining trend in PhD training and nursing science.

“It’s a challenging time in nursing education, particularly at the doctoral level because of the shortage,” Algase continued. “The more support we can make available to attract students of all backgrounds to [the PhD] route, the better off we are. … If they have a scientific mind, if they have an interest in caring, we need them.”

To learn more about the donors mentioned in this article or to apply for one of these awards, please visit or email

From molecules to the bedside