New senior associate dean seeks to increase research from the inside and out
Despite saying that she’s not completely settled in, there are no unpacked boxes cluttering Mariann R. Piano’s new office on the fourth floor of Godchaux Hall. Her desk displays photos of her husband and two sons. Framed prints of iconic South Shore Line railway posters adorn the walls. The most intriguing decor, however, might be the weathered metal sign touting tobacco and a print of Maxfield Parrish’s 1896 No-To-Bac gum ad.
Piano, the new senior associate dean for research at the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing (VUSN), explains that they represent some of her early research. “Today I’m very focused on alcohol, but I’ve studied the effects of smoking on the heart,” she said. “I’ve been on Capitol Hill lobbying against tobacco. Some of my recent policy work has been working with American Heart Association, summarizing evidence related to the adverse effects of alternative tobacco products like smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes.”
Piano, PhD, FAAN, FAHA, has investigated the effects of alcohol and smoking on cardiovascular health for most of her career. Currently, she is co-investigator on a two-year National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism R21 grant looking at whether binge drinking contributes to cardiovascular disease in young adults not predisposed to it.
It is other researchers’ work, however, that interests her most as head of the School of Nursing’s research program. Piano, who holds the Nancy and Hilliard Travis Chair in Nursing, is charged with supporting faculty scholarly endeavors, expanding the school’s research function, increasing trans-institutional collaborations and directing efforts to increase external funding. Her responsibilities include directing VUSN’s Center for Research Development and Scholarship, which supports faculty in research scholarly activity. She is also the school’s postdoctoral program director.
“Discovery and dissemination of knowledge are central to the mission of the School of Nursing,” said VUSN Dean Linda D. Norman, DSN, FAAN, the Valere Potter Menefee Professor in Nursing. “As we look ahead at our strategic plan, we want to grow our research footprint and infrastructure. Mariann has the right academic background, research experience and vision to move us to the next level of excellence.”
Piano came to Vanderbilt in September from the University of Illinois College of Nursing in Chicago, where she was Nursing Collegiate Professor and head of the Department of Biobehavioral Health Science. As department head, she was closely involved with her faculty’s research endeavors: mentoring, providing resources, encouraging educational opportunities and assisting with grant applications.
Those are all part of Piano’s job at Vanderbilt. “My role is to facilitate faculty research. It’s also to help build current faculty research programs,” she said. “Dean Norman wants to recruit and grow research faculty, so helping recruit is part of my role.” To do that strategically, she wants to examine existing research strengths and determine VUSN’s signature research areas.
“Understanding the latter as well as aligning VUSN’s research portfolio with national health priorities will drive who we recruit and hire. It will also be important to consider future faculty expertise in areas such as data science and genetics. As we grow the VUSN research program, another important consideration will be the partnerships between our research and clinical practice colleagues,” she said.
One of Piano’s first steps as senior associate dean was to get to know the 12 current research faculty members. She’s met with all the assistant professor tenure-track faculty individually to learn about them and their research, goals and needs. “I also met over lunch with the professors and associate professors and was able to discuss some initiatives with them,” she said. “The goal of all these meetings is to figure out what’s going to be helpful to the faculty at their specific career stages. I’m definitely getting a good sense of that.”
She’s also learning about the Center for Research Development and Scholarship staff. “Staff implement the day-to-day work flow, but they are also critical for advancing the CRDS’s mission,” she said. “I plan to partner with the staff to strengthen the CRDS structure for research and scholarship support. The staff provide assistance with grant preparation and management; support manuscript, paper and poster preparation; assist with statistics and much more.
“This office is here to facilitate research, which means being involved at the outset of the research idea. We support both pre- and post-award activities,” Piano said. “Faculty need to know we are more than a center where you send us the grant and we just submit it. We’re here to provide direction, help faculty formulate their research trajectory and receive constructive feedback.”
If that sounds very personal and career building, it is. Piano regards mentoring as a key element of her role as senior associate dean of research.
“As department chair at UIC, I did a lot of research and career mentoring,” she said. “I knew what everyone was doing. I’m a very hands-on mentor. My faculty joked that I edit everything — don’t give me anything unless you want to see a lot of comments and red ink.”
She views the mentor role as also helping the faculty member determine if they need additional support. “This support may require assistance with data analysis or something as simple as editing the manuscript. Often my role was simply to ask ‘How can I help?’ This is why I was very excited to come to Vanderbilt — it allows me to do two things that I’m really passionate about: mentoring and being involved in research.”
When Piano was considering the move to Vanderbilt, she sought feedback from a friend in Chicago. That friend, Ruth Kleinpell, PhD, FAAN, FAANP, FCCM, had been a visiting professor at Vanderbilt for several years. She encouraged Piano to join VUSN, saying that it would be a wonderful place for her.
Fast forward a few months, and Kleinpell, too, joined the School of Nursing full time. She’s now the assistant dean for clinical scholarship, charged with directing VUSN’s Scholarly Practice Program. That program supports clinical teaching faculty in scholarship initiatives and scholarly clinical excellence. In some institutions, clinical teaching faculty are not expected or encouraged to do scholarship. No so at Vanderbilt, where the university wants all its faculty to pursue inquiry.
Piano said that she and Kleinpell are working on plans to forge new collaboration between clinical practice and research faculty. “I think if we’re going to adopt a culture that research is important for advancing clinical practice, discovery and improving outcomes, then we need strong partnerships,” Piano said. Ideas for developing collaboration include brown bag lunches with opportunities for discussion or programs that might interest both groups. “I am thinking more broadly about how to support research and scholarship for a wider community of nurse scholars. I see the need to do that so that we’re all connected and fostering everyone’s potential,” she said.
Outside the school
During her first week at Vanderbilt, Piano found herself outside the School of Nursing several times, attending university-based committee meetings. “Which was good because I immediately connected with my counterparts in other areas,” she said. One of those meetings was with other center heads and a second was with the Vanderbilt University Research Council, a group of 10 Vanderbilt leaders charged with providing input and overseeing strategic planning for research. She’s also been assigned to a university-wide taskforce looking into data science.
She considers those meetings and committees vital to increasing opportunities for the school to participate in the trans-institutional initiatives that are part of Vanderbilt’s Academic Strategic Plan.
“I feel like I’m establishing interdisciplinary connections. There are a lot of things on the university side that we could naturally tie in with,” Piano said. She’s also felt very welcomed by her counterparts at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “When I’m in these meetings and they’re talking about initiatives, they see nursing as involved,” she said. “Overall, being part of these groups is a good opportunity to hit the ground running, quickly be submerged and know what’s happening on campus.”
Piano said she knows that School of Nursing faculty and students are already involved in interprofessional and trans-institutional projects, but wants to confirm everything is being tracked. “I’d like to do a SWOT analysis and find the percent of VUSN people who are collaborating with other Vanderbilt schools and then determine if that’s high enough,” she said. “I just think nursing has so much to offer.”
Focus on funding
Another of Piano’s goals also ties in with Vanderbilt’s: to increase research funding for the school.
“Of course, the bottom line would be absolutely to bring in more NIH (National Institutes of Health) research dollars, but we’ve got to think beyond NIH,” Piano said. “There are other sources: corporate, foundation, federal and philanthropic. We need to look at all sources and figure out how to target our grant submissions.”
She pointed to the U.S. Health and Human Services Administration (HRSA), which supports educational projects, including some at VUSN, as a source of funding that could be further explored and tapped. “They’ve funded many simulation projects recently,” she noted. “They’ve also funded large educational projects that are interdisciplinary.”
She considers raising both VUSN’s visibility and that of its faculty as laying the groundwork for more funding. “We need to have more people be American Academy of Nursing Fellows, or the equivalent in other organizations. I want us to promote our faculty, to nominate them for awards. Awards beget awards,” Piano said. “This is a way of positioning our faculty for future honors.” She also plans to encourage faculty to present at national multidisciplinary meetings. “That’s important because in today’s funding environment, your science is often reviewed by colleagues in other disciplines,” she noted.
by Nancy Wise