Dr. Shannon Ford had two laptops open on her desk and a large whiteboard on wheels positioned behind her chair as she worked.

The whiteboard was covered with numbers, circles, arrows pointing in different directions, and such words as “fatigue” and “suicidal idea” written on it.

As the first postdoctoral scholar in the UNC Greensboro School of Nursing, Ford is searching for patterns in biological, psychological, and social symptoms experienced by a variety of pediatric patients.

For example, the majority of serotonin, the key hormone that stabilizes an individual’s mood, is found in the gastrointestinal tract that runs through the body. Certain changes in serotonin levels can lead to teenagers experiencing a depressed mood, and as a result, no longer finding joy in activities that previously gave them pleasure.

“I’m working on several projects, but they all are aimed at understanding how symptoms tell unique stories for the specific populations experiencing them,” Ford said. “The beautiful thing is I get to work with multiple interdisciplinary groups, and so I get to learn from experts with different scopes of practice.

“I get to hear different views on how we think about caring for this population, how we think about what needs are, and what we think about the barriers to people having good access to care. So, it’s a fantastic thing because there is a lot to learn and do.”

The newly created postdoctoral scholar position, renewable on an annual basis, has been a win-win situation for Ford and the School of Nursing.

Ford, a pediatric nurse practitioner who earned her PhD from UNC Chapel Hill in 2020, has collaborated over the past year on new research projects, published articles in peer-reviewed journals, presented at conferences, and received mentoring by established nurse scientists.

She’s working on projects with researchers from UNCG, Boston University, the University of Wisconsin, Brown University, Duke University, UNC Wilmington, and the UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.

Her individual research has been focused on exploring data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study around symptom patterns associated with anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure), depressed mood, and suicidality.

The School of Nursing, meanwhile, has had the luxury of having a postdoctoral researcher in Ford to help expand its work involving health disparities in vulnerable populations.

“We are fortunate to have a scientist of the caliber of Dr. Ford as our first postdoctoral scholar. Today’s research climate is based on collaboration across interdisciplinary boundaries, and Dr. Ford is already making great strides in research to improve health and health care of children.” 

Dr. Debra Barksdale, dean of the UNCG School of Nursing

Ford was selected for this position following a national search. She works full-time in the School of Nursing, analyzing data, preparing grants, and writing articles for journals.

On the weekends, she treats pediatric patients as a nurse practitioner at a health center in Durham.

“We desired to expand our research through the development of new scholars,” said Dr. Debra Wallace, senior associate dean for research and innovation in the School of Nursing. “Specifically, we envisioned the postdoc scholar position as an opportunity for both the school and the scholar to expand capacity for funded research.”

Ford compared being a postdoctoral scholar in the School of Nursing to a new graduate getting hired as a registered nurse at a hospital. While the new nurse might be overwhelmed at first, the hospital puts the nurse through an extensive orientation to learn from and practice with more experienced nurses.

As a postdoctoral scholar, Ford has continued to learn ways to be a more effective researcher by collaborating with Wallace and taking a graduate-level course on network analysis at UNCG. She said working and learning from Wallace has “felt like I won the lottery.”

Ford likened finding the perfect place to do a postdoc to choosing the right university to earn a PhD.

“You’re looking for a place that has some of the same interests, that has the capacity to make it a symbiotic relationship between you and the school,” Ford said. “If you have good researchers and you can design good grants that are going to be useful to the public, then that funding will support more research, more students, and more research grants.”

Raised in Kansas City, Kansas, Ford was introduced to pediatric health by her mother who served as a nurse anesthetist with the U.S. Army Nurse Corps during the Vietnam War.

When Ford was a kid, police officers regularly showed up at her home at all times of the day with children who had been physically abused and needed a safe place to stay. Ford’s parents provided foster care to many children.

There were times when Ford shared her house with her two brothers and eight foster kids. Her family also hosted foreign exchange students from Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Japan.

“My environment gave me an appreciation that there are a lot of people out there with unique situations,” Ford said. “I developed a special interest in the children whom, I felt, did not have an opportunity to experience normal development, could not find or feel like they had a voice. It is important to me to promote understanding of what supports biopsychosocial health so kids can have the best chance at good health care outcomes and well-being.”

Wallace said the School of Nursing will look to fill its postdoctoral scholar position after Ford’s appointment ends. Ford has shown the viability of the position during her time at UNCG.

“We plan to continue the postdoc scholar position in the future,” Wallace said, “as this has highlighted the organization’s importance on research and training new scholars that will join the UNCG School of Nursing or other schools of nursing and contribute to the research, teaching, and service missions.”

Story by Alex Abrams, School of Nursing

Photography by Jewel Oates, Office of Research and Engagement