Waller Dedicated to Extending Health Care Solutions Beyond Social Determinants

Dr. Melody Waller (Photo by Allen Gillespie/UTHSC)

Nurse researcher Melody Norris Waller, PhD, MSN, RN, loves to answer the question “why,” particularly when it comes to health.

Dr. Waller is an assistant professor and coordinator of the RN-BSN option for the College of Nursing at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. “Often we have suspicions as to why things happen the way they do or why they happen to certain people,” she said. “Research helps us use science to explore the circumstances or occurrences that may or may not contribute to some health outcomes. Scientific investigation can often help us to identify the best way to ameliorate or eliminate issues being faced by certain populations or groups of people.”

She said figuring out the answers to those questions intrigues her, and being able to use the information generated by research to treat patients motivates her.

Dr. Waller’s research focuses on women’s health and improving the sexual and reproductive health status of African-American women. “Women’s health is important, and to that point, black women’s health is equally important,” she said. “We don’t always see that when we look at the numbers. While improvements are being made, when one examines the health outcomes of black women, we see that this group continues to experience greater disparity related to the incidence of sexually transmitted infections, unintended pregnancy, sexual violence, and infant mortality, among others when compared to Caucasian women.”

Her current study entitled, “Factors Associated with African American’s Sexual Health and Risk Behavior during Emerging Adulthood: A Mixed Methods Study” is aimed at understanding the sexual health and health behaviors of young African-American women (between the ages of 18 and 29). The study explores factors that may contribute to the increased incidence of conditions affecting African-American women compared to their Hispanic and Caucasian counterparts.
According to statistics from Dr. Waller, black women are 43 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than their white counterparts. In addition, black women also have higher rates of cervical cancer, HIV infection, pre-term delivery (giving birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy).

Dr. Waller’s interest in research began early in her nursing career as a maternity nurse at a surburban community hospital. “While I learned a great deal there, most of my patients were routine and fairly uncomplicated,” she said. “After some time, I transferred to a large, urban hospital, where I was still assisting women to give birth, but found that their pregnancies and birth experiences were complicated by social determinants, that for some had a major impact on the health outcomes of both the women and their infants. At that point, I knew that I wanted to further explore the problems that these women were facing and do my best to contribute toward the improvement of health for this group.”

Originally hired as a research nurse for the UTHSC College of Medicine, Dr. Waller transitioned to the College of Nursing, working her way up the ranks and into her current position. Although her study is thriving, she wants the community to know that there is still work to be done. “Researchers and health care providers have identified many of the problems, now we have to figure out how to solve them,” she said. “Health care interventions are not “one size fits all.” While some interventions may work well for some, they may not translate in the same way when applied to different groups.”

Dr. Waller encourages women who are interested in research to explore what they are passionate about. “Investigating a topic where you have genuine interest helps your work feel less like work,” she said. “Position yourself in such a way that you are immersed and can remain engaged in the content area. This may involve forming collaborations or partnerships with others in the field and ensuring your exposure to recent developments or advancement in the science related to your area of study. Lastly, I’d say, stay the course. Often the research road can be bumpy and unexpected, so be flexible, be creative, and remain committed.”

Dr. Waller has been with the university since 2005. She received her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2001, and a Master of Science in Nursing in Nursing Education with a concentration in Maternal-Child Health from the University of Memphis in 2009. After gaining experience within the nursing profession in the areas of obstetrics, maternity nursing, maternal-fetal research and nursing education, she received her Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing Science degree from UTHSC in 2016. In her spare time, Dr. Waller enjoys watching her sons play sports, watching professional sports, reading, painting, and gardening.