This week’s Friday Faculty Spotlight has a cuddly component – bunnies! Assistant Professor of Nursing and Campus Learning Lab coordinator Karen “Beth” Ballenger, Ph.D., mixes her love of rabbits with her research into lowering stress and anxiety levels, particularly within health care (it was even the topic of her doctoral research!). We hope you enjoy getting to know her better through her spotlight Q&A at su.edu!
If there’s a faculty member you feel the university community needs to get to know better, just fill out the Friday Faculty Spotlight submission form. Friday Faculty Spotlights appear in the SUN-e and on the university’s website twice a month. If you have any questions, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
What inspired you to become a nurse? How long have you been one?
I have been a nurse for 12.5 years. I decided I wanted to be a nurse while working in the operating room as a certified surgical technologist. I wanted to further my career and nursing was interesting to me. I researched the nursing profession and decided it was the mental challenge I needed. I haven’t looked back since!
How long have you worked at Shenandoah?
I was adjunct at Shenandoah from 2014-2016. I was hired full time in 2017. So this is the start of my fifth year teaching full time here.
When did you get your first pet rabbit? How many do you own now?
I got my first two rabbits in 2016. I had exposure to rabbits at the hospital when the volunteers would bring their therapy rabbits around for the staff and patients. I fell in love! I have five now; four are therapy animals and one is a rescue who is just a house bunny.
You just recently earned your Ph.D. Where did you earn your degree and what was the focus of your research?
I earned my Doctorate of Philosophy in Nursing from Wilkes University in August of 2021. The focus of my research was determining the effects of companion animal exposure on nursing students’ stress and anxiety levels.
Why have you decided to incorporate your bunnies into your research?
I volunteer at the hospital and other places taking the bunnies in for animal therapy. The rabbits and I are a registered animal therapy team certified through the organization Pet Partners and through the Winchester Medical Center Animal Assisted Therapy Program. The power of animal exposure is fascinating to me. Animal exposure, whether in the form of animal therapy or someone’s companion animal, has so many effects on the human body, that we have barely scratched the surface of it. Since it did and still fascinates me, I decided to use that topic for research. Bunnies were just the icing on the cake.
What have you discovered about using bunnies to help with stress and anxiety reduction?
My research found out that exposure to the rabbits did help reduce anxiety and stress. The nursing students will come to my office and ask for the bunnies, if I am not walking around with a bunny in a basket before classes. Nursing school is extremely stressful and I hope that I can help the students gain a moment of inner peace. Sometimes that is all you need to reset and be able to tackle the next hurdle.
How essential is stress and anxiety reduction for the mental health of health care providers?
Mental health is essential for health care providers. Health care providers see so many different things happen in people’s lives, not just medically, that a regular person has no idea of. Some of those experiences carry with you for a long time. It is essential to help health care workers feel mentally refreshed, because when you care for someone as their provider you care for them with your entire being. You can’t care for someone else when your own self-care is lacking.
What keeps you engaged as a teacher?
I love watching someone learn what I am teaching and actually understand, retain, and reapply it in their practice. It is very satisfying to know that I am helping the future of nursing by helping Shenandoah graduate competent nurses.
What do you hope your students take away from your classes and your time spent with them?
I hope my students remember the skills they learned, how it is OK to seek help, and that we all need a little love – whether it is self love, love from a special someone, parental love or love from an animal.