NIAMS Scientists Ė Diverse Backgrounds, Shared Goals

May 9, 2012

A conversation with NIAMS research nurse specialist Nicole Plass

Photo of Nicole Plass, B.S.N., M.P.A.
Nicole Plass, B.S.N., M.P.A.

Nicole Plass is a pediatric research nurse specialist in the Intramural Research Program (IRP) at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS). She received a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Molloy College in Rockville Centre, New York, and a Master of Public Administration degree from Troy State University in Troy, Alabama. Plass has been working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center for eight years, seven of those with the NIAMS. In her interview, Plass discusses her interests in science and research, what influenced her to become a pediatric nurse, offers helpful advice about science and research careers for minorities, and describes her best experiences as a nurse at the NIH.

What led to your interest in science and research?

Growing up in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens in New York, I always wanted to be a nurse. My aunt is a cardiac care nurse and my sister is a nurse in New York City. Prior to coming to the NIH, I served more than 10 years as a neonatal ICU nurse. My first job was as a school nurse in New York City, and I have been on active duty with the military for the last 12 years. My current rank is Lieutenant Commander, and for the last 8 years, I have served in the U.S. Public Health Service. I enjoy working with pediatric patients, but what led to my interest in research was learning about the disease process and improving the quality of life of patients.

What is the focus of your research?

The focus of my research is rheumatology. We see patients with autoinflammatory diseases (a disease that results when your inborn immune system causes inflammation (fever, rash, joint swelling) for unknown reasons) and genetic disorders. Seventy percent of our patients do not have a genetic diagnosis prior to coming to the NIH, so we try to see what is causing their particular disease and how we can treat them.

What is your typical day like?

My day usually begins around 7 a.m. and it can go sometimes until 6 p.m., depending on what patient care is needed. Basically, I do many different tasks, including administrative work, doing clinical procedures and obtaining exam results. My job is definitely multi-faceted. I can never say I am bored or have down time.

What do you enjoy the most about your career?

Seeing the positive effects of treatments on patients makes me very happy. Once they come to the NIH, the families can have a different outlook on life. Many times, the NIH is the last stop for them after having been to several doctors and undergoing numerous procedures. The enjoyment I get is from seeing the end result. The patients finally receive adequate treatment for their particular disease.

Describe your best experiences.

My best experiences come when I see parents who are very discouraged at first, but then their lives change within six months or less through the treatments the NIAMS provides to their children. They feel empowered. They finally get the right answers for their childís particular disease, and I can see the different outlook they have from when they first came in. At first, patients usually would have anxiety and worry about whether or not a treatment would work, but then, after getting adequate treatment, they would feel their life is changed.

Can you offer any advice for women or people from communities of color who wish to pursue a career in science and research?

First, you have to develop your passion. You have to love what you do. There are many opportunities for nurses; you can start by shadowing a nurse. Sometimes minorities are not interested in research because they have not really tapped into it, but, again, sometimes students come and shadow me and look at what I do. Nursing is not just about working in a hospital; now there are many different opportunities. Nurses are now involved in the treatment process of certain diseases, which provides different perspectives of the patients, scientists and health care providers. As a female of color, I never thought about working at the NIH. But, my experience working here definitely has given me a wide view of science because it involves pharmaceuticals, rehabilitation, science and research. It is a multi-faceted view that we get here more than anywhere else.

What are you most passionate about?

Iím passionate about many things. I try to maintain a healthy work and outside-of-work life balance. Iím passionate about my job and things that I do outside of work like singing and traveling. I sing at the NIAMS annual holiday party. I also sing at different events on and off campus. Also, I like to read, watch movies, travel and listen to music.