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Washington State University Health Sciences Spokane

Q&A with Molly Parker

Published October 23, 2023, by Judith Van Dongen

Portrait photo of Molly ParkerSince starting her educational and professional journey more than two decades ago, PhD in Nursing student Molly Parker has worked on environmental health and preventative health projects in Central America, provided community health services to California migrant farm worker families, worked with HIV-positive youth at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, and served as an operating room nurse at Spokane’s Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center. Now at WSU, she feels like she has come full circle as she pursues a career in nursing science that incorporates her love of nursing, community health, and environmental health.

What made you decide to pursue a PhD and conduct research?
Research is really about finding new knowledge and problem-solving, which has always been an interest of mine. After nine years in the operating room, I decided that I wanted to get back into work that focused on social and public health issues, and I started looking at different ways I could use my nursing skills to do that. When I described my interests and background to Tami Kelley [the College of Nursing’s graduate senior academic coordinator, Ed.], she suggested the PhD program. My interests in climate change and health then led me to become a research assistant for College of Nursing professor and associate dean for research Julie Postma, who is a leader in community-engaged research within those areas.

What was your educational background coming to WSU?
I have a bachelor’s degree in community studies from the University of California Santa Cruz. I moved from California to eastern Washington around the time that I decided to go into nursing, so I went to Spokane Community College to study for my RN license and earn an associate’s degree in nursing. The credentials and coursework from those two programs made me eligible to enter WSU’s Bacc-PhD program, which provides baccalaureate-prepared nurses with the opportunity to earn a PhD in about four years.

Tell us about the research you have been working on for your dissertation.
I’m looking at outdoor worker exposure to wildfire smoke in the workplace, particularly in the agricultural worker community. In 2021, Washington state adopted an emergency rule to protect workers from wildfire smoke, which has led to a proposed permanent rule that is currently being considered. The rule requires that employers monitor air quality, alert their workers when levels are hazardous, and offer protective measures. Under Dr. Postma’s guidance and with funding support from the WSU Health Equity Resource Center, IREACH, the Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center, and the Northwest Center for Occupational Health and Safety, I conducted two studies related to this new rule. As part of the first study, I interviewed agricultural workers about their experiences working in smoky conditions and their perceptions of the available protective measures. In the second study, I surveyed employers and supervisors on how they perceive smoke hazards and components of the rule. What I’m trying to find out is what gaps in education or behavior exist related to wildfire smoke exposure and risk reduction strategies.

What do you ultimately hope to achieve with your research?
The particles carried by wildfire smoke are known to be hazardous to respiratory; cardiovascular; ear, nose and throat; and mental health, as well as harmful to the eyes. Agricultural workers work at high levels of exertion outdoors during smoke season, causing them to be disproportionately exposed to hazardous air quality. Our ultimate goal with this research is to reduce wildfire smoke exposure in this population, which is also impacted by social determinants of health, barriers to accessing care, and an imbalance of power in the workplace. In the long run, this will hopefully prevent or diminish downstream health effects in farmworker communities.

Why is it important for nurses to be involved in this type of work?
There is a close connection between climate change, severe weather events, changes in the environment, and human health. Looking through an occupational and environmental health lens, nurses can help pinpoint to what extent these changes contribute to health trends we are seeing and work toward solutions. We also play a key role in advocating for health equity in marginalized populations who may be facing more adversity and may not receive the same level of health care as other people.

Is there anyone who has been especially helpful to you in your journey to become a nurse scientist?
Dr. Postma has been my guiding light throughout all of this. She has opened a lot of doors for me. With her support and encouragement, I successfully applied to the Jonas Nurse Scholars Initiative, a competitive scholarship program that supports doctoral nursing students pursuing work within certain impact areas. She also nominated me for the Chancellor’s Excellence Community Impact Award, which I received in 2022. But most importantly, she introduced me to this community-based research approach of connecting with community members and involving them in a solution-based research process. Going into research I had pictured it as involving mostly numbers, statistics, and data, so realizing that I’d be able to integrate the community health piece that I love into research was wonderful.

What have you enjoyed the most about being at WSU?
My experience connecting with the communities in Central Washington as part of my research has been amazing. I’m not from Washington and really did not know that part of the state, but having lived and worked in farmworker communities in California it seemed very familiar to me and felt like home. I’m also very happy to be a part of this large, super-supportive contingent of WSU nurse leaders who are working on issues related to environmental health and climate justice from different angles. In addition to Dr. Postma, those who have contributed to this area of nursing science include Elizabeth Schenk, Patricia Butterfield, Gail Oneal, Phyllis Eide, Claire Richards, Sheila Hurst, Tara Marko, Melissa Vera, and others. It’s very cool to be part of this group, and it feels like a real research strength for the WSU College of Nursing.

When will you graduate, and what will be next for you?
I hope to do my preliminary exams in December and defend my dissertation next spring. After I graduate, I would love to stay connected with WSU as faculty so I can hopefully continue this line of research, stay engaged with Dr. Postma, and keep developing my advanced nursing skills.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.