University of Southern Indiana

The Learning Curve

Illustration with yellow background, arrow pointing right and up, with 4 people walking on top of the arrow, person in front touching flag

By C. L. Stambush

(Contributing interviews from Angela St. Clair M’99)

Dr. Gabriela Mustata Wilson knew it was an opportunity for her Master of Health Administration (MHA) students to participate as a team in an inter-professional research project she couldn’t let slip by. A medical device company in Chicago had developed an intravenous catheter stabilizer—what it hoped was an industry game-changer—and needed to partner with two teams: one to conduct clinical research in a hospital setting on the product’s effectiveness, and another to collect data recorded from the hospital’s electronic health records (HER), analyze it and present the findings to its corporate team. “This was a great opportunity for my students because they would be working with professionals, learning how to access electronic records and see how fragmented that information can be,” Wilson said. 

Chair of the health informatics and information management program, Wilson is an astute relationship builder who’d honed her leadership skills working as a scientist and researcher, in the pharmaceutical industry and two renowned academic research institutions, before joining USI in 2011. When she heard about the research project through one of her connections at St. Vincent Evansville hospital, she understood the value such collaborative research with professionals could have for students and set out to develop a team to mine and analyze the data. “Research is very important for students,” she said. “It has to be, for them to be employable.” 

Wilson hand-picked an eclectic quartet of curious-minded, diversely-skilled young professionals eager to participate in the project based on their individual aptitudes. She knew their distinct outlooks would benefit the project and that friendship would be central to the team’s success. Three were from the College of Nursing and Health Professions’ MHA online course and one from its 4+1 program, which allows students to obtain a bachelor and master’s degree in five years while attending classes on campus. Of the four, two were international students—globeBhumika Gandhi ’18 from India and Ru Jia ’18 from China—while Terilea Patton ’18 lived in Evansville and Debra Silberberg ’18 resided in Indianapolis. They were single, married, married with children, fulltime working professionals and students with different perspectives and life experiences. The only common language they shared was a fluency in their desire to help others and their passion for the project—traits they’d rely on as they faced personal and project-related challenges and conflicts.

In January 2017, the group met with representatives from the company (PrimeGuard) and St. Vincent to discuss the project’s parameters and data extraction process. At the time, it was believed the project would take six months and the information could be retrieved via a “data dump” accessed remotely. “But guess what?” Wilson said. “That wasn’t the case.” Instead, the data had to be collected on site at night and on weekends, manually extracting it from the EHRs into a database the students created in order to analyze what they collected.

As the team built a baseline of information, learned how the nurses did their
clinical assessments and documented their observations, they discovered some missing data from the EHRs which would render the project valueless. “The students analyzed the data and determined what else was missing and found other problems,” Wilson said. “Based on our recommendations, and discussions with the company from Chicago, St. Vincent implemented our proposed modifications to the clinical study.” 


Focusing on the project’s technical aspects while adapting to its shifting terrain as other hurdles appeared—such as, not being able to shadow the nurses as they collected data—the students grappled to find their groove as they worked out communication kinks and scheduling conflicts. “In the beginning, everything worked fine because everyone was excited about the project,” Wilson said. “But then we ran into some language barriers and cultural misunderstandings.” The problems they experienced were rooted in communication, both technological and psychological. Not everyone’s phone texting applications synced, creating a gap within the group’s initial communications, so they switched to emails. Tones, however, were sometimes viewed as terse, especially at the end of a long day. “A bad day at work could affect how emails were perceived,” said Patton. “I had to learn that if I was upset about an email I had to step away, have a cup of coffee or play with my kids, then read it again. It had a whole new meaning then.”

To build their relationships, Wilson arranged meetings at Starbucks and other locations to talk about the project in a relaxed environment or just hang out. “I wanted them to get to know each other,” she said, “because exchanging information through emails is not teamwork.” Seven months into the data collection, however, she discovered new wrinkles in the team’s sinew that concerned her. “This was a research project, but most of all it was a leadership project,” Wilson said. “If you’re the leader of a team you are the one who needs to find the strengths and weaknesses of each member and how they communicate with each other, extracting the best from each regardless of their personality or style. I told them, ‘The only person you can change is yourself.’”

Wilson encouraged each one to embrace their role and draw on each other’s strengths. Patton shined as the “glue” and mediator, communicating next steps to the others based on the project’s needs; Gandhi excelled in the statistical analysis portion of the project and its organization for the presentation; Jia dominated when it came to calculations and identifying mistakes; and, Silberberg’s genius in coming up with a plan early-on that color-coded the information recorded in the database, made it easy for everyone to organize and understand the data.

doctor with a tablet

Over the course of the project’s 18 months, the team surpassed their client’s
expectations with their analysis of the data. “Everyone was always willing to offer to do things and help each other out if needed,” Silberberg said. But there was much more to the project. It allowed them to pioneer deeper relationships and understandings of each other, growing their capacity for empathy, patience, acceptance and trust that’s imperative for all successful teams, while improving their ability to comprehend complex data based on another’s opinion and perspective. But mostly, they became friends. “I never knew friendship was a skill,” Patton said, “until now.”

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