Nayab Mughal
Interviewing patients as part of her research has been particularly rewarding for Nayab Mughal, who wants to use her career to provide support to patients during some of their toughest moments. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Real research: Future nurse finds rewards in research’s potential to better understand others

Nayab Mughal has been involved in three studies, giving her the chance to learn how the pandemic has affected the experiences of both pregnant and hematopoietic stem cell transplant patients.

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As part of Research Weeks (April 14–May 1) we are highlighting the work of some of VCU’s 2020-21 Undergraduate Research Fellows. Research Weeks, which is taking place virtually this year, features a wide variety of projects in multiple disciplines from across the university.

When Nayab Mughal worked as a dental assistant in high school, she embraced the opportunity to help people. She sought to comfort and encourage them as they prepared for procedures, and she quickly found that a smile and a kind word could go a long way in those moments.

That inclination to offer support pushed Mughal to pursue a nursing career. It also inspired the Virginia Commonwealth University student, who is double majoring in nursing and psychology, to seek out ways she could contribute to research geared to helping people navigate difficult challenges. Today, Mughal is involved in three different research projects in the School of Nursing, each sharing that common theme.

“For me, research is about trying to understand people,” Mughal said. “I’m trying to understand how they feel, what they’re going through and how we can help them.”

A first-generation college student, Mughal said adjusting to college was difficult initially. She has held a series of part-time jobs in college, including juggling three positions at one point, and it took time to learn how to balance her various responsibilities. In fact, she was not accepted into the School of Nursing on her first attempt — a major blow because she was determined to make nursing her career.

That initial setback made her eventual acceptance into the nursing program more satisfying. 

“My hard work paid off, and that was very rewarding,” Mughal said. “I think it meant more because of what it took to get here.”

In nursing, she sees a field full of promising possibilities. 

“There is so much care, so much affection given by nurses to their patients,” Mughal said. “We’re helping people when they are in their most vulnerable state, and they’re really counting on us. Being able to help someone get through what they need to get through, not only physically but mentally, that’s why I chose nursing.” 

While still on the pre-nursing track, Mughal earned a research assistant position with Patricia Kinser, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Family and Community Health Nursing in the School of Nursing, and an affiliate associate professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in the School of Medicine, for her ongoing study of perinatal depression and its effects. 

“I felt right away like I belonged working in research,” Mughal said.

Today, Mughal is working with Kinser’s team on two different studies. In addition to the research into perinatal depression, Mughal is an assistant on a study into the experiences of pregnant and postpartum women during COVID-19. In addition, Mughal is part of a study with Lathika Mohanraj, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Adult Health and Nursing Systems, examining the experiences of hematopoietic stem transplant patients during the pandemic.

“This work justifies everything that I have been doing and that I want to do,” Mughal said. “Being able to be part of three different studies is just amazing. Being able to see how different they are, but also how they go hand in hand, how they interact with each other, and how I can learn so much about different people around Virginia and around the nation is very inspiring.”

As befitting someone who is also majoring in psychology, Mughal said she particularly enjoys conducting qualitative interviews as part of the research projects, such as asking pregnant women about the challenges they have faced.

“Interviewing these women and talking to them about their experiences, giving them a platform to sit there and talk about how they feel, has made me feel empowered and made me feel inspired by how much women go through on a daily basis,” Mughal said. “And it has just made me feel more strongly about the importance of helping women through research and trying to learn what we can do moving forward — how our physicians and our nurses can learn more about women and implement that knowledge into our practices.”

In addition to what is gained for research purposes, Mughal said the gratitude that participants show for the conversations demonstrates the value of the process to them.

“Our participants tell us how much they appreciate us reaching out to them,” Mughal said. “They thank us for giving them attention and giving them the power to talk about their experiences.”

Encouraged by her efforts so far at VCU, Mughal said she hopes to one day pursue a Ph.D. and manage her own research projects.

“I want to learn so much more about people and about their experiences,” Mughal said. “I’ve seen that research is a great way to do that.”