Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

Three StFX Rankin School of Nursing students gaining experience with summer employment at the Canadian Center for Vaccinology

June 13th, 2019
L-r, Layla Green, Antonia Di Castri and Laura Leppan

Three StFX Rankin School of Nursing students and recent graduates, Layla Green, Antonia Di Castri and Laura Leppan, are all employed and gaining valuable experience this summer working at the Canadian Center for Vaccinology (CCfV) in Halifax. 

The Canadian Center for Vaccinology was established to develop, implement and evaluate technologies and vaccines for infectious diseases that have a significant impact on Canadian and global health, and to train experts in these critical and evolving fields. It’s housed in the IWK Health Centre, and is a collaboration of the IWK, Dalhousie University, and the Nova Scotia Health Authority. 

The students are supervised by StFX nursing professor Dr. Donna Halperin, who holds a cross-appointment in pediatrics at Dalhousie University and is the associate director of the CCfV, responsible for the Programs, Policy and Implementation Group; and Dr. Scott Halperin, director at the CCfV and a professor of pediatrics, and microbiology & immunology at Dalhousie and adjunct professor at StFX.

Laura Leppan, of Halifax, NS, is entering her fourth year of the nursing program at StFX, in the honours stream. Her research at CCfV this summer is part of an ongoing clinical trial examining ways to protect very young infants from whooping cough (pertussis). 

“Specifically, I will be analyzing breast milk from women who were vaccinated during pregnancy to test for antibodies against whooping cough. If there are sufficient antibodies against whooping cough present in the breast milk, it could suggest that breastfeeding after maternal immunizations during pregnancy may offer additional protection to the newborn until they are old enough to receive their own vaccines,” she says 

She says becoming part of the CCfV team came from expressing interest in gaining research experience to her professor, now her honours co-supervisor, Dr. Donna Halperin, this past winter. 

“She was very keen to help me in this journey, and after discussing my interests in public health and maternal and newborn health, she consulted with Dr. Scott Halperin, also of CCfV, who suggested this project may be a great fit. I am so grateful for this incredible learning opportunity,” Ms. Leppan says. 

“So far, I have learned a vast amount about immunology, physiology behind vaccines, breast feeding, and preventable diseases, which have all further sparked my interest in these areas.”

Layla Green from Falmouth, NS, who just graduated from the honours nursing program in May 2019 is continuing the research she took part in as the subject of her undergraduate thesis at StFX, looking at the experiences and perspectives of community health experts in Nunavut with regard to maternal immunization in Inuit populations. 

“With this current position, having put in two years on this project already with my thesis, it has been great to continue on with this work past graduation and see where it goes,” says Ms. Green, who has also been added to the teams developing the protocols for two new recently funded projects. 

“I have had Dr. Donna Halperin as a prof since my first year at StFX and developed a very good working relationship with her over the course of my honours thesis project, where both she and Dr. Scott Halperin were my thesis advisors. She has definitely been a wonderful support and has opened up many doors for me in terms of research opportunities.” 

Ms. Green says the entire honours process at the Rankin School has left a strong impression on her and where she sees her career as a nurse going. “While I still thoroughly enjoy working at the bedside, having had the experience of doing research and learning to look at health care questions in a much different light has been truly eye-opening, and I hope to always keep one foot in the realm of research as I move forward in this profession.” 

Antonia Di Castri, of St. Albert, AB, graduated with a honours nursing degree from StFX in 2017 and is now a MSc candidate in the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology at Dalhousie University. This summer, her primary focus is work on her master's thesis project, a mixed methods study of the knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, values, and behaviours of pregnant Inuit women and Northern healthcare providers about maternal pertussis immunization. 

She is also writing manuscripts for projects she has worked on in previous years at the CCfV. Among them is her quantitative undergraduate honours thesis project, which explores public and healthcare provider perceptions of pharmacists as immunizers in Nova Scotia. 

“I am finding it to be a very exciting time in my work because I am finally able to see the results of these studies that I have been involved with since their nascence,” she says.

Ms. Di Castri says she was first offered a position at the CCfV during the summer between her third and fourth year of the StFX nursing program.

“Working at CCfV has been, and continues to be instrumental in my career path. I have honed a diverse research skill set that has proven to be very useful in my pursuit of graduate studies in epidemiology. I have had the opportunity to be a co-author on several academic articles and to present our research studies at national conferences. I am indebted to the investigators at the CCfV for their commensurate mentorship. Any future success that I might encounter is built upon the foundation laid by these outstanding people.”

Dr. Donna Halperin says this opportunity provides students with multidisciplinary exposure to a complete range of health disciplines, as CCfV brings together researchers from multiple institutions with biomedical, clinical, social sciences, and humanities backgrounds.

She says the opportunity also aligns members of the School of Nursing with a large, interdisciplinary research group comprising members from a broad range of health disciplines with an international reputation in vaccine research, and provides an impactful mechanism to expand StFX’s footprint in the health-related research realm. 

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