Students heading to National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Memphis

School of Nursing faculty members believe Kaitlin Gillespie will be the first WCU nursing student to present research at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research.

Western Carolina University students once again are among the nation’s leaders in the number of research projects accepted for presentation at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research, and this year, for the first time, WCU’s student contingent includes a representative of the School of Nursing.

Forty-seven students from Cullowhee were planning to board a bus Wednesday, April 5, to head to the 31st annual gathering, being held this year in Memphis. A total of 54 WCU student projects were accepted for the event, which is considered to be the most prestigious undergraduate research conference in the nation. Among the more than 400 higher education institutions participating this year, WCU is tied for ninth in the number of student projects accepted. The university’s students have placed in the top 10 in projects accepted for NCUR for 12 consecutive years.

WCU students had the second-most projects accepted among colleges and universities in North Carolina, said Jill Granger, dean of the Honors College. The college works with the Office of the Provost to help facilitate WCU students’ participation in NCUR each year.

Among the accepted projects, 27 are oral presentations, 26 are posters and one is a performing arts presentation, Granger said. The students represent 13 academic departments and they benefited from the mentorship of 34 faculty members.

This year’s NCUR is being held over a three-day period – Thursday, April 6, through Saturday, April 8 – at the University of Memphis. Funding to cover conference registration, transportation and accommodations is being provided through the Office of the Chancellor and provost’s office. WCU’s student and faculty group planned to leave campus at 9 a.m. April 5 and return around 11 p.m. April 8.

Kaitlin Gillespie, a nursing student from Burlington, planned to be on that bus. She will be presenting a poster at NCUR focusing on her project, “Medical Jargon and End-of-Life Decisions: What is the Impact on Patient Education and Decision-Making?”

“I’m nervous, but I’m excited,” Gillespie said, describing her feelings in anticipation of the trip. “This is the first real research I’ve ever done.”

Gillespie said she conceived the idea for her study last summer as she was discussing end-of-life issues with her grandmother, and reached the conclusion that the medical terminology used in the available documents is detrimental to older adults in making informed decisions. As part of her research, she organized an educational session for residents of a retirement community and conducted surveys before and after that gathering to determine to what degree the session could clear up participants’ questions concerning the terminology. She hopes to develop a tool to make the process work better for older adults, possibly a legal document that could be distributed at doctor offices.

Two assistant professors in WCU’s School of Nursing, Carol MacKusick and Amy Putnam, served as mentors for Gillespie as she worked on the project. MacKusick said the clinical demands that nursing students face makes it difficult for them to complete research projects for NCUR. Nursing faculty members believe Gillespie will be the first WCU nursing student to participate in the conference, she said.

“The project is all Kaitlin’s idea,” MacKusick said. “She did this out of her desire to improve advance directive and end-of-life planning for all, and her overwhelming desire to make sure older adults really understand how to prepare for end-of-life care. I was both honored and humbled to work with Kaitlin on this project and am so very proud of her work.”

Gillespie said she plans to graduate with her bachelor’s degree in nursing next December. She hopes to work in nursing for a year near her hometown before enrolling in a graduate program to earn to doctor of nursing practice degree.

Gillespie and the other WCU students presenting at NCUR are being joined by several faculty presenters. April Tallant, associate dean of the Honors College, and Bill Kwochka, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Physics, will join Granger in a presentation titled “Launching a Summer Research Program for Incoming Freshmen: Research Scholars at Western Carolina University.” Their presentation will address the issues involved in starting WCU’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program, which had its debut last year.

For more information about WCU’s participation in NCUR, contact the Honors College at 828-227-7383.