Stute’s science spotlight: Auburn fellow talks outreach, research

Published 10:30 am Wednesday, May 1, 2024

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Most scientists grow up playing with lab kits, loving dissection day or conducting “experiments.” Nina Stute did not. Stute is a doctoral student in Auburn’s Kinesiology program and a Rural Health Fellow at the Chambers County Health and Wellness Center. 

Stute did not have a traditional schooling. She was a competitive figure skater. Stute modestly said she wasn’t that good, but she was talented enough to have the sport occupy much of her time.

“Most people in my shoes end up coaching because we don’t really have time to go to school. I didn’t even go to traditional high school technically… A big part of why I skated was because I struggled with school,” Stute said laughing. 

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Like many college seniors, Stute felt a little aimless. She applied for a job at a physiology lab working on sports at her undergraduate alma mater, Ohio State, and fell in love. The marriage of her interest in sports and research, and her true passion for helping people led her to a graduate program at Appalachian State in North Carolina. 

“People hear Health and Exercise Science, and they’re like, ‘Oh, sports, physical therapy.’ But I would say a [the majority] of the funding dollars that go towards the Health Sciences is clinical-trial type research, and that is what I was doing during my master’s,” Stute said. 

Stute explained that exercise is used to test how the body responds to certain stressors to cause physiological changes such as an increased heart rate or blood pressure, in an ethical way.

“[Researchers can] emulate a similar stressor in a safe environment that they’re volunteering to do so it offers a really interesting opportunity to look at human physiology in a different way,” Stute said.

Her area of focus is neurovascular physiology. Stute said that it is a broad term for how the peripheral nervous system, all the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord, affect blood vessels.

“Every time you stand up, your blood pressure is changing. Your blood pressure has to change or you pass out,” Stute said. “That’s essentially what my area of research is…that control of your blood pressure.”

The researcher initially grew up in a more rural part of Ohio, and then her graduate work at Appalachian State brought her to the rural South. Without realizing it she found an interest in rural health disparities. 

One of the reasons she became a rural health fellow was because the focus of research has often been on the same communities. Much of her research so far has been at Auburn with college students who are often able to receive and afford quality healthcare. 

“As far as taking it to the rural setting, the science doesn’t change. It’s the same science. It’s just an opportunity to operate with people that need the care the most,” Stute said. “People who live in rural areas are far more likely to have a lack of access to health care, due to the provider shortages, hospital closures, geographic distance to care.”

One part of the fellowship is working at the Chambers County Community Health and Wellness Center in LaFayette. As her research hasn’t begun, this means giving free blood pressure screenings to people who come in. 

“[Being in the community] is, I think, the main reason that all of us should be getting into our science [field]. How can we best serve those who need the most care?” Stute said. “Money can buy us a lot of privacy. It can put distance from seeing suffering and people that are in need… Research doesn’t really mean anything at that point. It’s just, how can I help this person? And I think that’s what is so great about this center.”

The rural fellow program at Auburn is a collection of students, ranging from undergraduate to doctoral students, like Stute. According to the program’s website, the goal is to “educate and develop a network of diverse rural health leaders to serve in key positions in the healthcare arena with health equity as a focus.”

The fellowship is a year-long program where the students work on a project that aims to address issues of health equity within Chambers County. Some of the projects the students are working on are period poverty in high school females, nutritional education for those with chronic conditions and hearing aid access to those in need, among others. 

Some of the projects focus on outreach or services, while others aim to look at the root causes of some disparities through data and research. Stute’s projects, which are still going through the authorization process, would look at two things: whether hydration affects cardiovascular health and the role of at-home blood pressure machines in the health of patients.

While she is a researcher at heart, Stute’s goal is not to have data points at the end of her project but to be of service to the historically underserved communities in healthcare before, during and after her research projects. 

“I think something that I’ve been leaning into is health literacy,” Stute said. “I want [the patients] to be able to ask questions. I want them to walk away with a fundamental understanding of blood pressure, why it’s important, why you need to take your medications, and what happens when you don’t. To me, I think that’s the service that I can best provide.”

While the fellowship is only for a year, the projects are meant to last. 

“There are all these people that offer support and guidance, and other students that work with me that will continue the projects on, so I can’t promise that this is going to be here, but we’re doing everything we can to make it stay,” Stute said.