A Nose for Research

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Maryan Arrieta’s transition from a practicing nurse to research enthusiast certainly passes the sniff test.

Her research as a first-year doctoral student at Rush University College of Nursing’s Nursing Science program focuses on an e-nose technology that holds promise for sniffing out diseases. Arrieta, who is diving into her work as a researcher after picking up valuable experience as a neonatal intensive care unit nurse at Rush, talks about the switch from bedside to bench, her rewarding collaboration with nursing research mentors and pursuing her career goals.

Tell us about your background.

Maryan Arrieta: I grew up in Naperville, Illinois. While I was in high school, I volunteered at a community hospital where I was able to shadow nurses, and I quickly gained a lot of respect for them.

Then I attended the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I received a bachelor of science in nursing. I was as a student aid for medical technologists in their microbiology lab, where I worked with patient specimens. It bothered me that I knew the person’s diagnosis but wasn’t able to work with them personally. I wanted to be at the forefront of patient care. That’s what solidified my choice to become a nurse.

After earning my bachelor’s, I went back home to Naperville and worked in a neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU. I soon started working in the NICU at Rush University Medical Center.

I started to have a lot of questions about the babies who came to us because of low blood sugar, which is known as hypoglycemia. I noticed that a lot of the hypoglycemic babies had mothers who were diabetic or had gestational diabetes. The complications of gestational diabetes piqued my interest and curiosity. So while I originally pursued nursing so I can be involved in direct patient care, I started to realize I had a strong interest in research. That meant going back to school to pursue an advanced degree.

What was it about Rush’s PhD program that drew your interest?

MA: Since I worked at Rush, I decided to look into the PhD in nursing science program. It seemed like a good fit for what I wanted to do. I met Dr. Barbara Swanson before I applied and talked to her about my career interests as well as her own. Her enthusiasm and passion were contagious. I was really inspired by her work, and that really drew me to the program at Rush.

Tell us about your experience at Rush so far.

MA: The PhD in Nursing Science program is all online, but since I live in the suburbs of Chicago I can easily go to the campus. That gives me the benefit of meeting faculty in person.

Even if I’m speaking to them live on the telephone or through video conference, meeting with my adviser once a week is what I’ve really enjoyed so far. Dr. Swanson and my other adviser, Dr. Louis Fogg,  allow me to explore research in a non-linear manner where I can go off on tangents. That type of discussion makes research less intimidating for me and makes me feel like new and different ideas are welcome.

What has been your research focus so far?

MA: My research interest is in gestational diabetes and postpartum diabetes, and that’s what I intend to focus my dissertation on. I hope to use an electronic nose,  which is like an artificial olfactory system, to generate smell patterns to screen for postpartum diabetes. This e-nose is able to detect odors, which are known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. The e-nose smells these various odors and generates what we call a smell print — basically a smell pattern — which may have the ability to diagnose various diseases, as well as who might be at risk for those diseases.

Right now I’m in the research literature review phase. My faculty advisers and I are looking at past research that used the e-nose. We’re trying to find gaps in knowledge. It hasn’t been applied in practice yet, but I’m hoping to make use of it for postpartum diabetes screening.

One of the complications of gestational diabetes is that women have an increased risk for developing Type 2 diabetes, or postpartum diabetes. But patient compliance for postpartum diabetes screening is very low. Many new moms don’t have the time or resources to go to a clinic for a two-hour test to screen for diabetes. My hope is that my research with the e-nose will lead to a quicker, noninvasive screening tool for postpartum diabetes. You can hold it in your hand, and it can be brought to the community or the mom to accommodate for those who aren’t able to travel to the clinic due to the time needed for newborn care.

Why did you decide to focus on gestational diabetes?

MA: It really goes back to my experience working in the NICU, where I noticed that several mothers who had gestational diabetes could not afford to visit their infant in the NICU. They had to call to get updates and couldn’t physically be there for their infants. That was really sad, and it got me thinking about these women and how they likely can’t afford to see their health care provider either. These women become more at risk for the development of Type 2 diabetes. So I want to help them out in a way that can accommodate for whatever circumstances they find themselves in.

How do you see your career ultimately unfolding?

MA: After I graduate, my plan is to apply for a postdoctoral fellowship so I can continue to gain skills in research. Ideally, I would like to continue to do research with the e-nose and hopefully develop my own research program as a faculty member.

What advice would you give to someone considering a similar path?

MA: If you’re thinking about pursuing nursing research, I suggest you find what piques your interest. Then read the research on it and figure out what are the gaps in knowledge for that particular topic. Conducting research to fill those gaps in knowledge has helped me understand how I can help others through my own research.