Faculty Profile: Dr. Kathleen Rourke, Nursing

She’s spent more than two decades in academia, holds two bachelor’s degrees, two master’s degrees, a PhD and has a Certification in Education.

She’s worked with institutions all across the United States and throughout her travels served as faculty, a Dean, Associate Dean, VPAA, on a Board of Trustees, and been a Chair of a Board of Trustees.

At SUNY Poly, in the position of Nursing Department Chair, Dr. Kathleen Rourke is just getting warmed up, even if she wasn’t sure where she was headed at the very start.

“Upon graduation from University of Massachusetts at Amherst with my bachelor’s degree in Nutrition and Microbiology, I had actually gone on to pursue an MS in Microbiology but was not satisfied,” she says. “My advisor from my UG degree program spent considerable time with me, helping me develop a strategy for a career plan and that is how I ended up in Nursing. I can also thank him for teaching me to be a scholar and good faculty member. He brought me into his microbiology lab and taught me to be a bench scientist, write grants and publish papers. Thus, I owe him a great deal of gratitude for the skills he imparted. I always try to impress these same skills on my students as a professor. After I started working as a trauma nurse, I became frustrated with the number of patients I cared for who appeared to have issues or disease states that were related to their diet, exercise and health behavior habits.”

From there, she went back to school for a master’s degree in Health Education/Promotion at Russell Sage College in Troy, NY, to complete her credentials as a Registered Dietitian, a choice, she said, that enhanced her nursing credentials and provided the foundation for advice she often gives to her students today – to combine majors that will enhance their credentials in ways that other individuals do not share.

“Nurses looking to graduate education should consider combining their nursing education with other complementary fields such as law, informatics, business management, transformational leadership, alternative therapies and nutrition, etc. Combining these complementary fields optimizes the nurse’s opportunities and competitive edge.”

She continued with a PhD at Syracuse University in Nutrition Science, which included a combination of nutrition, biochemistry and exercise physiology. After teaching, administrating and working in the area of health sciences for many years, she chose to go back and obtain her second master’s degree, this time in Nursing Leadership. Then it was on to Regis University in Denver, Colorado, for her Certification in Education so she could focus her teaching on nursing.

“If students get anything from my educational path, I hope it is that it is never too late to go back and try something new and different and one should always continue to learn and grow!”

She was working in Georgia when the opportunity to work at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica presented itself – a change of climate, to say the least.

“When I told my boss in Georgia that I was taking a job in upstate New York, he certainly questioned my sanity. But I feel it is a real privilege to be able to spend so much time within this amazing wilderness area.”

She certainly had a familiarity with life in upstate New York, as she and her husband own a house in the Adirondacks where they’ve enjoyed spending time for more than three decades, even if only during summer trips.

And unlike the quickly changing weather patterns of upstate New York that she returned to, Dr. Rourke says the faculty and staff she’s gotten the opportunity to work with at SUNY Poly have been anything but stormy.

“So many of the individuals I am working with have been warm and supportive and helped me to manage within my new environment. As someone who has been many places, this has not always been the case, so I feel very fortunate to be in such a caring and sharing environment!

Of course, working with students has been lots of fun and a great motivator. I really enjoy reaching the students and motivating them to enjoy and perhaps get excited about a content area that they may not have wanted to study.”

Her main areas for teaching are research and public policy, and outside of the classroom Dr. Rourke continues to stay active in her research, focusing on several facets of the area of obesity. She has had numerous publications on the topic, as well as on the topics of food addictions and bone density. In fact, her original work was in the area of bone density, which she continues to explore, currently researching how weight loss will affect bone density in young girls.

“One thing that I am a firm believer in is that if one has a PhD, it is their responsibility to publish and do research and I do love doing research. I feel my job is really to inspire students to learn to love research as my mentor taught me. While I know all students will not end up being researchers, I do want the students to appreciate the importance of research to the field of nursing and health science. The same is true for public policy. If we do not engage in politics, policy and policy reform, then how do we expect our profession to improve or our patient’s lives to get better? In both instances, my students have really risen to the occasion, and I have been inspired by teaching in my classes here at SUNY Poly.”

Nursing and dietetics have both changed drastically since she first began practicing, changes she’s keen to always stay aware of as she helps shape the educational foundation and career paths of future health care professionals.

“Policies and standards of practice are so much better defined and nurses have much more responsibility. The entry level, or the bed side nurse is now required to care for sicker or more acute patients while dealing with multiple complex pieces of electronic and other types of mechanical equipment. The majority of bachelor’s-prepared nurses also have the same responsibilities for committee work that we as faculty members do. In other words, many hospital facilities are engaged in shared governance, allowing nurses a voice in their units and in their institution.”

Change is the name of the game; as Dr. Rourke says, the health science professions are currently changing rapidly on a weekly basis and will continue to do so well into the future. Those changes, she says, can be based on numerous factors, including outcomes of the Affordable Care Act, innovations in science and industry and consumer demand. Consumer demand is having a greater impact on how health care is delivered, she explains, and health care facilities are paying incredibly close attention to what is said by consumers on their patient satisfaction surveys.

Science continues to support the impact of nutrition in the prevention of all chronic diseases that currently plague the citizens of this country, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. Rourke says the Affordable Care Act places high emphasis on health promotion activities instead of just sickness care activities.

“The health care industry has and continues to advance with amazing feats of equipment, benefitting and saving lives,” she says. “One only needs to watch a television show about our progress with disabled veterans to see how the industry of orthotics and prosthetics has helped disabled citizens. Health care professionals cannot only save lives but keep patients living long after they may want to live or would be considered ‘healthy’ or productive members of society.”

In her own area of research into obesity, more is being learned about the condition which for so long was looked at as a weakness. It’s thanks to research such as hers that obesity is now recognized as a multifactorial condition involving changes caused by modification of gene expression, an environment that promotes gaining weight and is not conducive to weight loss, and alterations in certain hormones. However, ever-expanding education, research and technology could be the key to unlocking the mystery of how to combat such health conditions in the future.

“The ability to use nanotechnology as a miniature programmable drug delivery system to reduce the prevalence of obesity is a distinct possibility as is the use of nanotechnology for diagnostic purposes. Thus, nurses will need to have greater proficiency in nanotechnology, genetics and informatics. I think health care in the future will be about delivering personalized medical/health care to each individual patient customized for their particular needs.”

So many times we’re told in life to do what we love – often a task easier said than done for many. But for Dr. Rourke, she’s been able to do just that, and she feels incredibly grateful for the chance to do so.

“It’s just a great thing that I love what I do and people are not always so fortunate to say that. The advice I give my students is the same advice I give my children. Don’t do anything for money but because you love what you do. My career in academics has presented me with lots of challenges. At one point in my career, I actually had someone ask me very seriously why I kept working in academia. And to be quite honest, being a professional working woman in academia is not at all easy. Just because there are more women in nursing and the health sciences does not mean that the salary and other discriminatory issues do not exist, just as they do in all other fields. But I know that my struggles have given way for opportunities not only for my students, but I have a daughter of my own who has provided me with the best gift any one woman could get. She recognized and lived through my struggles and thanked me for the opportunities they have provided her. Thus, no job will be easy, thus passion is a must pre-requisite for one’s job choice. If I did not love what I do, I could not have withstood the number of years I have served as an academician and the many long hours I put in.”