Barbara Wolfe, PhD

Dean, URI College of Nursing

Barbara Wolfe, PhD

Dean, College of Nursing
University of Rhode Island 


What is your role as Dean of URI’s College of Nursing?

I just finished up my first year at URI. I came from Boston College, where I was the Associate Dean for Research at the Connell School of Nursing. I also had an appointment at the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. This last year has involved staying on course with the college’s vision: To be a dynamic catalyst for improving health and transforming health and healthcare. I’m working to see this through by helping create an environment that prepares our nursing students to excel as outstanding and compassionate clinicians, scholars, and leaders who will ultimately enhance the health and healthcare of people, families, communities, and populations – both local and global.

What makes URI’s approach to nursing progressive?

Simply put, we’re nimble, collaborative and innovative enough to respond and prepare a workforce for the ever-changing landscape of healthcare. Our commitment to social justice, inclusivity and social engagement equips our students to go out and shape the future of healthcare.

What challenges does this changing healthcare landscape present to young nursing professionals?

The healthcare environment I was educated and prepared for doesn’t exist today. We were prepared to be nurses in hospitals providing acute care. Today, we know that most of healthcare is provided in non-hospital, community-based settings. So being creative in thinking about new and different roles for which nurses could serve, and meeting that aim by providing healthcare in these non-traditional settings is a major challenge – as well as an opportunity.

One area we are looking at URI, in-line with a recent priority outlined by the Executive Office of the Department of Health and Human Services, is a  focus on healthcare workforce transformation. Teaching the key concepts of health systems and practice transformation is crucial. We can’t pretend healthcare will be a static environment. 

We can’t pretend healthcare will be a static environment. 

What kinds of clinical research are your faculty working on?

We have several exciting research projects happening at the College of Nursing.  Associate Professor Deb Erickson-Owens, along with her colleague Professor Emerita Judith Mercer, are working on an NIH-funded infant brain study conducted in the Department of Pediatrics at Women and Infant’s Hospital. They’re examining brain development during the first two years of life of babies who have immediate umbilical cord clamping vs. those who with delayed clamping, to see which practice would have better outcomes for babies. 

Of course there’s also Marcella Thompson, an assistant professor in the College of Nursing, who has been awarded an Advance-CTR Pilot Project to examine exposure of PCBs and mercury among members of the Narragansett tribe whose diet includes locally caught fish in a community engagement-focused project.

We’ve also recruited four postdocs to assume full-time assistant professor positions, and their research all lends nicely to the idea of translational research.

For example, Amy D’Agata, PhD, from the University of South Florida, examines infant exposure to potentially traumatic events in the NICU. Her focus is very translational, bench-to-bedside work. Brandi Cotton, PhD, another of our recruits, completed her T32 postdoc in geriatric mental health at the School of Medicine at Dartmouth and will continue to pursue her interest in behavioral health in geriatric populations.

What are the health issues you’re most focused on addressing in Rhode Island?

Behavioral health is large area of need in this state, particularly if you look at substance use and abuse. Dr. Cotton’s work will nicely align with this issue, as she’s interested in substance use with older populations, as one example.

Beyond state health priorities, my own area of research is in eating disorders: women struggling with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. While a smaller group, relative to other psychiatric disorders, these conditions certainly can be very debilitating and are associated with high comorbidity. I’m interested in the psychobiology: looking at interplay between brain chemistry (e.g., neurotransmitters)  and how that links to behaviors, symptoms and also who will respond to different interventions.

How does your research background influence your work?

I hope you can hear from my enthusiasm how much I truly love clinical research and enjoy having the clinical practice unveil the questions that need to be answered to improve and sustain health for people. That was my work -- outpatient therapy with women who struggled with eating disorders.  Likewise I am very data- and outcome-oriented. I think having the research background has helped me a great deal. It helps me make informed decisions, based on what is and what could it be. It has taught me how to pay attention to detail but also not lose sight of the big picture. And finally, it has prepared me to be a better mentor to those launching their own research careers, which is a very rewarding thing to be able to do.

Let’s talk about the Nursing Education Center (NEC) that’s soon to open in Downtown Providence. What is it, and what can we expect?

The NEC will house three different schools: URI, Rhode Island College and Brown. It’s a shared space that will optimize the use and availability of labs, technology and resources that might otherwise be cost prohibitive. Sharing the space will not only enhance the capacity of each school, but will also open the doors for increased interdisciplinary, inter-institutional collaboration and research. From a research perspective, the NEC’s central location to a robust, research- and clinically-intensive area of innovation has enormous potential.

When will it open, and where is it?

URI faculty will be moving into the space in July, and the NEC will open for classes in Fall 2017. It’s located on Eddy Street in Providence in the Old South Street Power Station.

What are your goals for the NEC?

We’re focused on innovation, creativity and practice excellence because ultimately our goal is to move forward and be progressive rather than maintaining the status quo.

What do you think the future of nursing looks like?

I’m an optimist. In Rhode Island, I think it’s extremely bright. Clinically, we have world-class agencies and partners, and the same can be said about education. We have visionary state initiatives, as I mentioned the Executive Office of Health and Human Services has focused on healthcare workforce transformation in a number of different ways. The synergy between various domains is palpable, and the possibilities are endless.

Included in that synergy would be the research opportunities and other collaborative opportunities that exist here. Whether through Advance-CTR, or at URI’s newly established Academic Health Collaborative, a lot of avenues are available for novel collaborations, partnerships, and initiatives that will help move things forward in a less conventional way.

The synergy between various domains is palpable, and the possibilities

are endless.

We’re in good shape at URI with a robust and rising number of applicants to the College of Nursing. Nursing has been daunted in the past by some stereotyping, but I think we’ve moved beyond that.

Finally, looking beyond Rhode Island, advanced education is now part of the norm, not an oddity. People are going back to school to become nurse practitioners or pursue a doctorate in nursing practice, or a PhD in nursing. I think these are all good things that are reflective of the development of the profession.

What are some ways mentoring helped you, and how does that affect how you mentor others?

I had great mentors – and multiple mentors throughout different phases of my career. I was also very fortunate to have mentors within, but also outside of nursing. This really taught me the value of interdisciplinary teams, publishing with people outside of my own discipline, and publishing outside of my own discipline. These are lessons learned that I try to bring into my own mentoring. Research doesn’t always go the way you want it to. That’s the point, you’re asking a question-- it’s high risk because if you already know the answer then it is probably not worth researching. It’s wonderful to help get people off the ground and watch them flourish.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

Something comes to mind, and it might sound a little bit funny. I had the opportunity to be a part of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Executive Nurse Fellows Program. While I was there, I met Dr. Shirley Chater, who was a senior advisor to the program and was also the former president of Texas Women’s University, as well as the former Commissioner of Social Security. She would often remind us, “To be on time is to be late.”

It might sound simple, but it really has multiple meanings. To value and be respectful of the time and efforts of others, to show up, to be present and participate, and most importantly, it reminds us to not be late to the game and stay ahead of the status quo.

Up Close is a regular series where members of the Advance-CTR community discuss their research, careers, and trends in the field. Interested in seeing someone you admire featured in the series? Email with recommendations. View the complete series archive here