Nursing professor receives prestigious research title
After nearly 31 years of work at Loyola’s Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing, Sue Penckofer, PhD, RN, FAAN, recently became the first ever nursing professor to be named a Distinguished University Research Professor.
Penckofer has a passion for improving the day-to-day lives of her patients. Her earlier research on women’s cardiovascular health led her to dig deeper into the mental health of women with diabetes.
How did you end up at Loyola?
I came to Loyola in 1984 as a graduate student with a master’s degree from the University of Illinois. I had been working at Rush and really wanted to go into teaching, and I came to Loyola to teach. So I taught for many years, and when I finished getting my PhD I was able to start teaching graduate students in the 90s. I always had a passion for doing research, even when I was an undergraduate. It’s something that I just found so exciting. So when I started teaching graduate students, I became more involved in research.
What led you to your current research area?
My research has been primarily in women’s cardiovascular health. For my dissertation, I looked at the outcomes of women who had cardio bypass surgery. After that, I started exploring the role of estrogen in protecting the heart. That work led to people calling me from the Diabetes Association. They would ask, ‘Do we really know anything about women with diabetes and what happens when they hit menopause?’ That was interesting because the symptoms of menopause are so similar to the symptoms of diabetes.
So I started to look at the quality of life in women with Type 2 Diabetes. At that time, I was working with the endocrinology group here at Loyola and Mary Ann Emanuele, MD, medical director, inpatient diabetes at the Loyola University Health System. She has just been phenomenal. We basically found that the structures in the lives of women with diabetes were not allowing them to take care of themselves or make themselves a priority. As a result of that, we ended up receiving funding doing group therapy for women with Type 2 Diabetes. It was intended to help people realize that diabetes affects their mood. It was really well-received.
Tell us about the research you are doing now?
When I was doing the therapy for these women, some of them said that their doctors gave them Vitamin D, and it made them feel a little bit better. I was taking Vitamin D myself, and a nurse called after some blood tests and told me my Vitamin D level was way too high. So I stopped it. About 6-8 weeks after I stopped taking the Vitamin D, I felt really kind of down. I thought, ‘this is exactly what the patient was telling me.’ I found that there was very little research at the time about Vitamin D and depression. I love that sometimes you learn something from your patients, and it impacts your own life.
Twenty-five percent of people with diabetes have depression. It’s a huge problem. With the results of that study, we found that people got significantly better with the Vitamin D. When we compared the data, the improvement that people got from 8 weeks of group therapy was almost the same amount of improvement from taking the Vitamin D for 12 weeks. We are doing a randomized study right now. From what we are seeing so far, people are getting significantly better. Whether it’s due to the drug or not, we won’t know for another year and a half.
What excites you about the possibilities of the research you are doing right now?
I’m just so excited if it really proves to be true that Vitamin D can improve the mental health of diabetic women, because this is something that is so cost-effective. It would be great if you could take this Vitamin D and not have to take an anti-depressant, which has so many side effects.
We’ve been really lucky in recruiting people and we have a big following in the Maywood community. For us this is really a win-win. We make a lot of friends in the Maywood community and we’ve had some wonderful things happen because of our study. Patients get to be a part of something that they probably would not have had the opportunity to be a part of before. It also has been a wonderful opportunity for the graduate and undergraduate students who work on our project. They learn about research, they learn about mental health, and they learn about diabetes.
I myself was trained on how to do cognitive therapy when I first got the grant to do the group therapy study. I got great administrative experience when I was director of the doctoral program, but this research has really allowed me to develop my work with the next generation of researchers. It’s been a really wonderful experience these past few years.
What does it mean to you to be the only person from Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing to have the title of Distinguished University Research Professor?
I think it’s certainly a recognition for all of the work that I have been doing, but it’s also a recognition for Niehoff. For me, at the Health Sciences Campus in particular, this has been a great opportunity. The title came with support for graduate assistance, so it will help develop our students’ work, which is tough when you run out of funds for your grant.
Why is Loyola a great place to do research?
Loyola is all about embodying the human spirit. I’m so happy that I can teach here because I get to work with small cohorts of students. The investment in the individual for their own personal development is so important. And this is also reflected in the work we do with the Loyola University Health System and their patients. We are trying to nurture the mental health of patients so they can take better care of themselves and their families.
What advice would you give to students looking to pursue research in the nursing field?
Be patient. It will come together. I would also tell my students to have confidence in themselves because they can do it, even when it gets overwhelming. Many of my students are working full-time, caring for a family, and doing their studies. I think patience and persistence are very important. Generosity is another thing. Developing science is not just about me, it’s about improving the health and quality of life.