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Nola the Nurse and Scharmaine Baker-Lawson, DNP '08

It’s a drizzly morning in Shreveport, LA, but big band jazz pours from the loudspeakers inside the Greenwood Acres Full Gospel Baptist Church, and look—a giant mascot dressed as a nurse in a white uniform with a huge afro and long felt lashes is dancing up the aisle. Bodies in puffy coats and sweatshirts twist on the pews to get a good look—hundreds of them, girls and boys in third, fourth, and fifth grades, chanting NO-LA! NO-LA! NO-LA!

Waving to the crowd, Nola the Nurse® reaches the front of the church, and starts to dance with her creator, Dr. Scharmaine Lawson-Baker, DNP ’08. They sway, bump hips, clap. Soon the music settles down and so do the kids, which is good, because Nola and Baker are up from New Orleans to do some educating.

“Have any of you heard of a nurse practitioner?” Baker demands of the crowd.

“NO,” says a little boy in the front row.

“NO?” says Baker, feigning outrage. “Well, see, that’s what I’m here to change.”

Photo by Reginald Dodd. Baker is on the right.

Baker was born in New Orleans, where she was raised by her grandmother. She discovered nursing in high school, and quickly recognized how closely it fit her interests and abilities. Baker earned her BSN from Dillard University and soon moved to Washington DC, where she worked up and down the east coast as a travel nurse. After her grandmother passed away, Baker moved to Nashville, where she earned her MSN on a full scholarship from Tennessee State University and became a family nurse practitioner. Short stints followed as a missionary nurse in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, but missing New Orleans, she soon moved back home.

In 2004, she took over a physician’s house call practice, and liked it. The following year she incorporated her own house call practice, Advanced Clinical Consultants. That spring, ACC had about 15 patients. When Hurricane Katrina hit in late August, her practice had grown to 100. Baker evacuated, returning in October. By January, her patient roster had quintupled.

“It was just unbelievable,” she says. “I was seeing 20, 25 patients a day. A normal house call schedule is around 10 to 12. But after the hurricane, the community that I was serving just didn’t have anyone else to provide primary care, so I kept going.”

Outraged by the slow and paltry government response, Baker became something of a spokesperson for the state of healthcare in New Orleans after Katrina. “I felt as if we were being ignored down here. My friend and I began calling media outlets. Katie Couric was coming to do a kind of whereare-they-now on New Orleans post-Katrina for CBS Evening News, and the producer said to me ‘Not only does she want to meet you, she wants to do some house calls with you.’” Coverage by other national and local media followed, including The Washington Post and Forbes.

And still she saw patients. Being a primary care provider post-catastrophe was a crash course in environmental, social, and psychological factors that can affect physical health. “I had a patient in his 70’s who was living above a garage because his home had been devastated in the storm,” Baker says. “I was seeing him for months, and his blood pressure was just uncontrollable. He was on like five medications for it.”

“I was thinking about whether I should refer him to cardiology, but there essentially was no cardiology—so few specialists had returned to the city. So I was like ‘You know what, I’m it. I have to figure this out.’”

“Once I started digging into it, I found out that he was panicked that he didn’t have the keys to his FEMA trailer (temporary housing provided to residents whose homes were lost in the storm). He had finally gotten this trailer, but it was useless. Somehow I was able to get that key from FEMA delivered to him, and his blood pressure stabilized. That was a profound experience for me.”

Photo by Reginald Dodd

Back in Shreveport, groups of kids file into a large room to sit on the floor in front of a projector. Baker is up there perched on a chair, and she reads to them from the first Nola the Nurse® book while illustrations from the book display on the screen behind her: Nola chasing her dog Gumbo in an attempt to put a bandage on him. Watching her mom examining a patient at the hospital. Seated at a dining room table with her friend’s family, the mother resplendent in a traditional Kenyan dress.

 It’s an interactive reading, which means Baker peppers it with questions for the audience. One that doesn’t always go the way she wants is the question of what Nola “stands for” (the answer is New Orleans, LA).

“Caring!” says a little boy in a puffy black jacket.

“That’s a good answer, but not the one I’m looking for,” says Baker. “Someone else.” A girl with a big white bow in her hair suggests that Nola stands for helping people get better.

Photo by Reginald Dodd

Nola the Nurse is the 7-year-old star of a series of children’s books that Baker writes. “I could not find any books that would give my daughter an idea of what her mommy does,” she says, also noting the dearth of books featuring African American advanced healthcare practitioners. “And again, coming from my DNP at Chatham—I see a problem; I need to fix it.”

Nola wants to be a nurse practitioner like her mom, and she cares for sick baby dolls in her neighborhood. In each book, she discovers a new culture through traditional foods. There are Nola the Nurse workbooks and activity books, and Baker is working on an animated series. The first book has been translated into French and Spanish, with sales of the Spanish translation on track to surpass sales of the original English version. There’s also a Nola the Nurse doll, complete with dress, head gear and a nurse practitioner bag.

“I started thinking about getting my DNP after Katrina,” says Baker “I knew I needed to have more knowledge about systems and how to effect widespread change. A DNP would allow me to make a bigger impact in the healthcare arena.” “Chatham was the best fit for me because I couldn’t leave my area – we were still dealing with the ground zero catastrophe. I could take classes and still be able to meet the needs of my family and my community post-Katrina.”

At Chatham, her capstone project was on the efficacy of group visits for patients with diabetes. “The outcomes were amazing,” she ways. “Group visits can work really well. People feel good when there are others around them who are going through the same thing, and are often more likely to speak up.”

Baker was fast amassing expertise in house calls, and the requests for consults from other practitioners became overwhelming. In 2008, the year she earned her DNP, she created “The Housecall Course,” a two-day experience encompassing theory and practice (it has been since trimmed down to one day) for nurse practitioners interested in starting their own house call practices in mostly rural areas. Baker has trained over 500 nurses from across America. In 2008, she received the Entrepreneur of the Year by ADVANCE for Nurse Practitioners magazine, which featured her on the cover. Baker has also been elected a fellow of the American Academy of Nursing (2017) and a fellow of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (2012).

Baker speaks at conferences across the country, often to groups of nurse practitioners, and often about nurse entrepreneurship. But another topic close to her heart is health information technology (HIT). During Katrina, the office space that she had moved her house call practice into was flooded with water up to the ceiling.

“The miracle is that because I didn’t want to drag my patients’ charts into their homes, I’d been using my Palm Pilot to keep track of simple stuff, like their medicines, emergency contacts, whether they’d had a mammogram. It blew my mind that I had all that data and it solidified my belief in HIT. Hospitals couldn’t start because they’d lost their patients’ data, but I had it all right there.”

While Baker still makes some house calls, her primary job today is chief medical officer at Common Ground Health Clinic, a federally qualified healthcare clinic. “Most of our patients are low-income residents who may or may not have insurance or be able to pay,” she says. “I’m still serving my community, but now I have funding and structure. I have other leaders around me and we put our heads together. It’s nice to have that collaboration to effect greater change in this impoverished community.”

Applied Data Science Analytics and Stephanie Rosenthal, PhD

Stephanie Rosenthal, PhD

Look, I love being a writer. I went to school for this stuff, three times. But that was before I knew that data science was a thing, how cool it is, and the kinds of job (and salary!) prospects that are out there for people who study it.

Chatham Assistant Professor of Applied Data Analytics Stephanie Rosenthal filled me in. “Companies are using data science analytics today all over the place,” she tells me, and gives a bunch of examples, which I’m not even going to pare down for you, because that’s how excited I am:

  • Amazon.com and other websites use data analytics to determine what products to recommend to you and even what to charge for them.

  • “Walmart is famous for knowing exactly what to ship to every store at every time, because they track everything—what comes in, what goes out, what the weather was like—whether people tend to buy hot dog buns when there’s a hurricane approaching in addition to toilet paper and bottled water. They know all of these things about collective behavior based on our purchases and demographics.”
  • Credit card fraud is identified using data science analytics “That’s why you’ll get a call as soon as one purchase is made that is out of character for you,” says Rosenthal. “They’ve developed models to see what your normal behavior is, so they can see what’s out of the ordinary—either because a lot of different people are suddenly buying something, or because you’re buying something that seems out of character. You get a phone call because someone did that math.”
  • “Your Google search results look different from mine because they’re based on what we’ve searched for in the past,” Rosenthal says.
  • If you see a rectangle drawn around your face in a photograph that you’re viewing on your phone or computer screen, that’s data analytics, too. “Someone has gone through and labeled faces and worked out how to detect them—in general, what they’re looking for is tone gradients, where the forehead, cheeks and chin are lighter than the eyes, nose, and mouth regions—and that’s just built into cameras today.”
  • “The traffic information you get from your GPS or your phone is possible because it collects data from other phones in cars—whether they’re moving or not. Some of the cool new research I’ve seen coming out of CMU figures out how to change the timing of traffic lights based on the number of cars that are waiting there, so when there is a lot of traffic coming, it can be pushed through faster.”
  • Voice recognition programs like Siri and Alexa are built using data analytics around natural language.

In general, says Rosenthal, data science and data analytics try to get information from data—analyzing patterns to come up with insights. What’s the difference between the two? “Very roughly,” she says, “I would say that data analytics is about running statistics on data, and data science is about collecting it, getting it in the right format, and visualizing it in ways that are productive. We’ll be doing both, which is why the major is called Applied Data Science Analytics.”

Data science and data analytics are some of the highest paying jobs in the job market today. People all want to make better use of their data. It’s not just Microsoft and Facebook and Google who are hiring those people; it’s also UPMC and Highmark, and marketing, travel companies, school systems, consulting firms. Our goal is to prepare students to be successful in any of those places.”

This fall, Rosenthal is teaching a research methods course and an introduction to programming course. “I learned to program a long time ago, from my gym teacher,” she says. “I wasn’t really taught why things work, just how to code. So my goal for the Intro to Programming course is to try to really give students insight into why they’re doing what they’re doing.”

Rosenthal will also be co-teaching the Capstone Seminar for some business courses with Professor and Director of Business Programs Rachel Chung. For example, students in the management information systems major will be helping the Master of Arts in Food Studies students open their new coffee lab.

It’s a business that’s starting up; there’s no reason our students shouldn’t be able to help analyze what their business plan should look like,” she says. 

Rosenthal plans to provide students with more hands-on experience by involving them in her own research, too. “I’m interested in how we can collect data more intelligently and also to teach data collection and research methods for effectively,” she says. She is developing a data collection platform to deploy on campus. Students in Rosenthal’s current classes are researching where it should be located, what it should do, and how it could be marketed. Once deployed, students in the Applied Data Science Analytics major will be able to use the data collected by the platform in their classes and also display their work for the campus to see.

Rosenthal is also interested in “producing English explanations of what data analytics say.” In computer security, for example, experts often monitor networks by hand, because of lack of trust that artificial intelligence would make the right decision. “We can help people trust systems better if we do a good job of explaining why they should,” she says.

Chatham’s Applied Data Science Analytics program teaches students to critically identify, communicate, and analyze challenging analytical problems, effectively organize and manage datasets, and develop robust solutions. They are also equipped to evaluate ethical, privacy, and security challenges in their fields of practice.