Three University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing students awarded grant from Jonas Philanthropies

Katherine “Kat” Britt, Tonychris Nnaka, and Angela Preston

AUSTIN, Texas — Three UT Austin nursing doctoral students have been selected for the 2021–2023 Jonas Nursing and Veterans Healthcare scholar cohort. As such, they are among 76 of the nation’s most promising doctoral nursing scholars who are addressing the country’s most pressing health care challenges, according to Jonas Philanthropies.

Katherine “Kat” Britt, BSN, RN, has completed her second year in the Bachelor of Science in Nursing to PhD program and is simultaneously working on a master's degree in Informatics, Quality, and Safety at UT Tyler. After beginning her nursing career in pediatric intensive care, her research now focuses on elderly people with dementia and their families. She is researching the impact religion and spirituality have on mental and physical health in persons at high risk of developing dementia and who have dementia.

“I’m interested in building our understanding of the connection of religion and spirituality with health. My intervention will support individuals’ spiritual needs and involve their caregivers and family members in a holistic approach,” she said. “We have so much to learn about this population in order to improve our systems and draw attention to things that are meaningful to them. I feel so encouraged by the support the Jonas Scholar program will provide toward this end.”

Kat and Dr. Gayle Acton, assistant dean for Graduate Programs, published “Exploring the Meaning of Spirituality and Spiritual Care with Help from Viktor Frankl” in the Journal of Holistic Nursing in June 2021. She is a research assistant for Dr. Kathy Richards on an NIH-funded study focused on sleep and restless leg syndrome in persons with dementia.

Tonychris Nnaka, MPH, RN, CPH, is a second-year doctoral student with a master’s degree in public health with concentrations in epidemiology, environmental and occupational health sciences. His background includes experience as a registered nurse in surgical-trauma intensive care at Parkland Health and Hospital System in Dallas, a clinical nurse leader, and a clinical epidemiologist. He currently serves as health policy advisor to the Mayor of Dallas. Tonychris’s experience working with underserved communities while employed at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and as a critical care nurse leader at one of the largest safety net hospitals in the nation, has led him to focus his research on understanding the impact of environmental and structural racism on hypertension disease risk and management.

“Heart disease is the leading cause of the death in the United States and disproportionately affects Black and Hispanic adults,” he said. “Because hypertension is the precursor to most cases of heart disease, my research will attempt to quantify the extent to which environmental and structural racism contributes to hypertension disease risk and management among this population. I plan to merge my skills as an epidemiologist with my research activities to develop tailored risk mitigation and intervention strategies for hypertension disease among my targeted population. The Jonas Scholar award affirms the need for my research. I’m honored to be part of the program and hope to use the platform to share my findings at a national level.”

Tonychris is also a recipient of an NIH T32 scholarship awarded by the School of Nursing’s Transdisciplinary Precision Health Intervention Methodology Training Program.

After practicing 10 years as a nurse in the neonatal ICU and as a school nurse in a medically underserved community, Angela Preston, MSN, RN, CNE, recognized the importance of family-centered care and how much social determinants of health influence long-term outcomes. After finding that evidence to support the changes needed was lacking, she decided to enter the nursing doctoral program to develop research skills. Her research now focuses on psychological capital and connectedness in relation to adolescent mental health.

“I’m looking at those promotive factors that can empower disadvantaged youth during a time of developmental transition,” she said. “I hope to create a body of evidence that supports policy changes to improve adolescent mental health in community settings. It’s very humbling to have my work recognized by the Jonas Scholar program. The award will allow me to dedicate more time to research and create partnerships with others who are making things happen through policy reform.”

Angela’s paper “The Art and Science of Nursing Are Not Mutually Exclusive” was published in the Nursing Science Quarterly in July 2021, and an article co-authored by Dr. Lynn Rew, “Connectedness, self-esteem, and prosocial behaviors protect adolescent mental health following social isolation: A systematic review,” has been accepted for publication in Issues in Mental Health Nursing.

“I couldn’t be prouder of Kat, Tonychris and Angela,” said Alexa Stuifbergen, dean of the School of Nursing. “Their research foci are so meaningful in today’s challenging health care situation, and their academic diligence is impressive. We are thankful that the Jonas Nursing and Veterans Healthcare has come alongside these students to help them create a body of work that is sure to change the world.”

Jonas Nursing and Veterans Healthcare is the signature program of Jonas Philanthropies, which was founded in 2006 to address the nationwide nursing shortage. Celebrating its 15th anniversary in 2021, Jonas Philanthropies has invested more than $27 million in 1,400 nurse scholars in all 50 states. The program offers nurse scholars the expertise and guidance of subject matter experts who are leaders in their fields and will facilitate relationship-building, research development, funding, and mentorship opportunities for the nurse scholar cohort.

“We are proud to introduce the most diverse cohort in our history, both in subject matter and in demographics,” Jonas Philanthropies Vice President John Jonas said. “By investing in nurse scholars, Jonas Philanthropies is charting the path forward for critical health care priorities, including veterans health, mental health, vision care and environmental health.” 

In addition to the Jonas Center for Nursing and Veterans Healthcare, the grant was made possible by generous matching funds from UT Austin School of Nursing donors.