Fall Convocation ‘21 Spotlight: Caitlin Chalmers Zaplachinski

Nursing grad's research investigates perceived school-based public health nurse role and its contributions to the Comprehensive School Health model.

Allie Voisin - 18 November 2021

Some of us are green and gold, through and through. This is particularly true for Caitlin Chalmers Zaplachinski, MN ‘21, who completed her BSc specialization in immunology and infection in 2013 and her BScN after degree program, both from the University of Alberta. 

During her after-degree program, she was exposed to the endless opportunities that result from graduate studies after conducting research under the supervision of Dr. Diane Kunyk and Dr. Shannon MacDonald. Naturally, pursuing her Master’s of Nursing from the Faculty of Nursing was the next step forward in her educational journey. 

Chalmers Zaplachinski — who currently works for the Government of Alberta as a Nurse Consultant, Public Health Management in the COVID-19 Emergency Operations Centre — opted for the thesis-based program to become more adept with qualitative research, and chose the leadership stream due to her interest in a career in health policy. 

“I previously worked as a school-based public health nurse and my experience triggered my interest in knowing how other nurses in these roles may perceive their work,” explained Chalmers Zaplachinski. “Through my research, I was able to identify several themes such as the work focusing on the in-school immunization program, resource constraints contributing to inconsistent roles in health promotion and role tension from the role changing and narrowing over time.”

As the University of Alberta’s Fall Virtual Convocation 2021 nears, Caitlin Chalmers Zaplachinski reflects back on her graduate research, how she overcame challenges amidst a global pandemic, and more in this Q & A. 

What impact do you hope your research makes?

My study worked to investigate the perceived role and interactions of school-based public health nurses in a jurisdiction with a publicly funded health care system and identified a critical gap between the perceived school-based public health nurse role and a comprehensive school health model. I hope that my research can highlight that strategies are needed to support an expanded role for school-based public health nurses in comprehensive school health, such as providing additional knowledge and education on school nursing practice and having a clear definition of the role.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought health care workers to the frontlines of the response and has highlighted the importance of their roles. As the pandemic eventually comes to an end, it is more important than ever to clearly communicate how Registered Nurses can play an important role in all areas of health, including supporting health in our school communities. An expanded school-based public health nurse role may be a viable solution to improve children’s health in a time of ever-increasing needs for health services.

What obstacles did you have to overcome completing your research during a global pandemic?

I defended my thesis proposal in March 2020. This was also my first shift returning to the Communicable Disease Control program to do case management and contact tracing for some of the first COVID-19 cases in Alberta. This small program of Registered Nurses has turned into what is the massive provincial contact tracing program today. Every day I wasn’t working in my part-time position in community health, I was assisting with the public health response to COVID-19. I ended up working on my research ethics submission during lunch breaks to get everything submitted.

In June 2020, I started a new position as a Nurse Consultant with the Government of Alberta, where I work on the COVID-19 response from the policy side. I also still work casually doing contact tracing and immunization clinics. I had to be very strategic with time management and ended up doing the bulk of my thesis work during vacation breaks.

My thesis data collection was also really impacted by COVID-19. Many health care staff were redeployed at various times during the pandemic. When schools closed in March 2020, the majority of my study population (school-based public health nurses) were redeployed to do swabbing and work at secondary assessment centres. This made it very difficult to do recruitment. I had to amend my recruitment strategy to try and get additional participants, and I ended up with fewer participants than I originally had hoped for. However, I was still able to collect rich data and I had a successful defence at the end of June.

You worked full-time while writing your thesis, what was that like? Any valuable takeaways?

Taking the program part-time while working allowed me to work on my professional goals at the same time as my academics. I was able to work in several areas in public health and communicable disease control, which ultimately helped lead me to my current position in health policy. It was my original goal to get into a health policy position within 10 years of graduating my BScN; however, I was able to reach this goal in just 5 years due to both my graduate program and the professional opportunities I was able to take.

Do you have any words of advice for students beginning their graduate studies?

I think my biggest piece of advice for students beginning their graduate studies is to enjoy the program. For me, doing a graduate program was not just about getting it over and done with. I did this program for myself. My studies felt like a time where I had the academic freedom to pursue my own interests. Each course was essentially a guide in how to approach my topics of interest from multiple angles and really get a deeper understanding of higher learning. 

The graduate program is also a great time to get involved in other opportunities such as graduate research assistantships and networking with like-minded individuals. I had some amazing opportunities to be involved in a systematic review, as well as a graduate research assistantship for an integrative review. I had a poster presentation at the 2019 Canadian Public Health Association conference and an oral presentation at the 2019 Shirley Stinson Research Conference. These are all amazing learning opportunities and help to break up some of the monotony of coursework.

Anything more you’d like to add?

I would like to acknowledge and thank the individuals who supported me through my graduate studies. From my academic advisors and thesis co-supervisors to my defence committee and my instructors throughout the program. All of these individuals helped to shape my program and I would not be where I am today without their mentorship.

Are you interested in deepening your nursing pathway? Learn more: https://www.ualberta.ca/nursing/programs/graduate-programs-and-admissions/index.html