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Nerds of Mizzou

Nerd nurse is quite a case

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Photo by Shane Epping
  • Published: May 27, 2009
Greg Alexander

Greg Alexander, a professor in MU's Sinclair School of Nursing, integrates nerdy technological expertise into his health-care career.

Nurses at the Sinclair School of Nursing feel a special fondness for an assistant professor who is the only man on the nursing faculty.

As a researcher who combines nursing care with informatics, Greg Alexander speaks and understands the language of human-computer interaction. That makes him a rare specimen and, according to colleagues, a first-rate nerd.

“Greg is quiet, contemplative and reflective for fear that when he speaks people will know he’s a nerd,” says David B. Oliver, assistant director of MU’s Interdisciplinary Center on Aging. He theorizes that Alexander’s cyber-space imagination and computer jargon are bewildering to everyone but Alexander.

Daughter Cara, 17, who has seen Alexander in action, puts his geekiness in context: While making conversation, he’ll talk about the linguistics and computer language he uses for nursing-home projects — explanations that evoke silence and blank looks from listeners.

Cara has jarred him back to Earth with the explanation, “Dad, this is why nobody asks what you do at work.”

Using technology to improve lives

A nurse with an interest in engineering may seem to be a strange mix, but Alexander uses information technology for early intervention to help keep older people out of the hospital and improve their ability to age in their places of residence.

With a focus on the nursing-home industry, Alexander studies interrelationships among people, their environment, the technology they use and the tasks they perform. He then creates interfaces to make the data usable. In a current project, he is creating an interface to remotely detect the decline and monitor the health of elders, a new approach that is revolutionizing traditional eldercare.

“Greg is brilliant,” says Associate Research Professor Bonnie Wakefield, who shares research interests with Alexander. “He understands how electronics work in the clinical world. For someone who is a recent PhD, he’s well recognized in the field of nursing informatics.”

Alexander leads a group of multidisciplinary researchers in a motion-capture technology project at TigerPlace — an aging-in-place, seniors’ apartment complex linked to the nursing school. He’s responsible for creating a computer interface between data gathered from sensors in the residents’ apartments and the resulting displays of information that eldercare providers and family members can use. 

Such technology offers help for "Aunt Edna" before she falls and can’t get up.

To preserve her privacy, the program uses pixels and computer angles to display Aunt Edna’s image as a silhouette, rather like an unidentifiable blob. Sensors in test rooms at TigerPlace monitor how often she opens kitchen cabinets, refrigerators and doors or uses the bathroom. A device near her bed measures her heart rate, breathing and restlessness. By studying data displays of her activity patterns and daily routine, caregivers can predetermine her risk of falling when changes in normal activity become apparent.

Alexander collaborates on the human-computer interaction with several specialists in eldercare, including engineers, social-services personnel, psychologists, physicians, geriatricians, information scientists, interior designers, usability experts, physical therapists, architects, veterinarians — patients’ pets are residents, too — and students.

“To be embedded in that kind of place is huge in my career,” Alexander says. “It’s a great place for a bunch of nerds to hang out.” His research is funded by a prestigious K-Award from the Agency for Healthcare Research Quality, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services and of the RAND Corporation.

Hatching a career

Digital image

Alexander created a computer interface through which data collected by sensors in seniors' apartments can be monitored on a screen. Monitors show only silhouettes and "distance maps," such as the image above, to protect residents' privacy as well as their health and safety.

What attracted Alexander to nursing is the variety of work. In one of his more unusual jobs in the profession, Alexander spent some time at a turkey plant as nurse manager of the company’s ergonomincs program. Collaborating with veterinarians and engineers, he focused on safety for the plant workers who held monotonous but dangerous jobs. The experience positioned Alexander to think outside the box and led to his interest in nursing-home safety.

Although he has an astonishing six degrees to his credit, Alexander shows few signs of halting his quest to learn. His nursing career began in 1988 with an RN degree, followed by a bachelor’s degree in biology, a nursing diploma, a master’s degree in health administration, a doctorate in nursing and, most recently, a master’s degree in information sciences.

“Enough graduation parties,” he says. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be more study. “I always try to add something new to my knowledge base” — which may explain his penchant for devouring textbooks and science journals. 

Alexander’s colleagues say family and work are his life, and Alexander can’t even think of another interest. “When I get off here…” he says, then pauses. “I never get off here.”

Family summer in D.C.? Priceless!

Alexander loves spending time with his family. After he won an important pre-doctoral fellowship in informatics at the National Library of Medicine in Washington, D.C., he invited his wife, Mary, and their kids to come along for a summer vacation. While he worked, the family could study American history through the monuments and museums.

“We saw so much,” Alexander says of the experience. They stayed one month in Maryland by the Chesapeake Bay and another in Virginia by the Potomac River.

It may sound idyllic, but Cara offers another view. The vacation home was a pop-up trailer for six, she says, and they are a family of seven. Each kid could pack only one small box of possessions. Alexander hung his wardrobe — three changes of mix-and-match clothing — on a rod in his car. Amenities, she says, were of the campground variety, and the television blew up on movie night.

To keep track of the kids during a festival on the Washington Mall, the Alexanders dressed them alike in red, white and blue. But it was the Fourth of July; everyone was wearing red, white and blue.

Alexander’s busy brain

Strangely, the engineers who work with Alexander, including Marge Skubic, MU associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, have a hard time pinpointing his nerdy traits. “He knows a lot about computers and spearheaded the interface work with eldercare technology projects. What he does seems normal to me,” Skubic says.

“He has a busy brain,” says former colleague Kris Kalmbach of Springfield, Mo. “He’s always walking out and leaving something behind.” In the winter when it’s 20 degrees, he’ll leave without his jacket, she says.

Veterinarian Sherri Russell describes Alexander, a longtime friend, as a brilliant researcher. “Culturally, we can’t decide if we’re at peace with nerds, and we eschew them when we’re young. But being a nerd is very honorable,” she says. 

Honorable indeed. The nursing school has honored Alexander with several teaching and research awards, and he serves on national panels for organizations such as the Alliance for Nursing Informatics and the American Medical Informatics Association.

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012