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Fall 2018

Clockwise from the left: Alexandra Parker receives a medal earned during the Iraqi Campaign. (Photo provided) | Jean Putnam (BSN ’85), left, speaks with Jo Brooks (ADN ’65). (Photo by Rebecca Wilcox) | Mitchell Knisely (Photo provided)

Nursing alumni improve lives throughout the world

Aaron Martin

From classrooms and laboratories to boardrooms and far-flung battlegrounds, three Purdue alumni are certainly making valuable contributions to the nursing profession.

Jean Putnam, Mitchell Knisely and Alexandra Parker are all leaving footprints in their field and fulfilling the Purdue Nursing program’s goal of preparing students to be influential, wherever that may be. Putnam and Knisely are doing so as a health care administrator and nurse scientist, respectively, while Parker is championing world health in her role as a military nursing officer.

Each one’s journey is unique, but they all began at Purdue.

Operating ahead of the curve

Putnam, an Indiana native, says, “When I first went into nursing, I thought I might just get my degree and go back to my hometown to be a nurse, but my world really opened up at Purdue.”

Today, she is the executive vice president and chief nursing officer for Community Health Network in Indianapolis.

“I was exposed to so many different things and saw that there were a lot of different opportunities. Nursing was more than just working in an office or at a hospital. I realized there were many unique facets of nursing. Purdue really opened my eyes to the world.” 

Putnam, who also earned a political science minor at Purdue, took her interest in health policy with her when she went to graduate school at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. While there, she earned her master’s degree in nursing health policy and worked for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Aging. Putnam also worked in various roles as a patient care nurse.

Since then, Putnam has earned a doctorate in nursing practice and held administrative positions overseeing staff performance, quality improvement and risk management at Elkhart General Hospital and with Community Health Network. She also is a member of the board of directors of the Indiana Center for Nursing and serves on the advisory council for the schools of nursing at Purdue, Anderson University and Indiana University.

“It’s amazing what you can do with a nursing degree. You can work in pharmaceutical sales, you can be a CEO, you can be a COO, you can run your own clinic. The sky’s the limit, and, to me, Purdue Nursing is ahead of the curve,” says Putnam, who has two nieces in the Purdue nursing program. 

“It’s really hard to beat the quality of a Purdue nursing education and the number of different advanced degrees Purdue offers. Going to graduate school wasn’t necessarily what nurses did back when I was in school, but that’s clearly not the case now. I applaud Purdue for being so proactive.” 

Plunging into research

Knisely graduated from Purdue in 2009 and immediately went to work as an intensive care nurse. After working in Houston and Indianapolis, however, he felt an itch to continue learning. That, combined with his firsthand experience with patients in pain, compelled Knisely to pursue his nursing research doctorate from the Indiana University School of Nursing and begin researching pain management.

“My desire to continue my education was a bug that was planted early on at Purdue, but so was the idea that we remain patient-centered,” Knisely says. “Whatever I do has to be geared toward improving the well-being and quality of life of patients. If I lose that focus, I’ll lose my fire.”

Knisely earned his doctorate in 2016, then worked as a postdoctoral researcher in the molecular genomics program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing. Knisely who is a past president of the Purdue College of Health and Human Sciences Alumni Board, is now an assistant professor at Duke University School of Nursing. 

“The Purdue nursing faculty was very big on preaching the need for us to continue our education, move on and be leaders in our fields,” Knisely says. “I always knew I was going to do it. I didn’t know when, and I worked the clinical side for more than four years, but the idea was always there. Now, I have an understanding of the basic science and the clinical applications. I feel like I can speak both languages, which will help me continue my research to better understand the mechanisms of pain and identify more effective strategies for pain relief across populations and settings.”

Helping around the world

Parker, a 2004 nursing graduate, is now a Major in the U.S. Air Force and the Chief of Medical Security Cooperation with U.S. Air Forces Central Command’s Office of the Command Surgeon. She worked as a critical care nurse after graduation but deployed to Iraq in 2009 to work in a forward-deployed field hospital that provided life-saving care. 

“A deployment is a unique experience that not all nurses have,” Parker says. “You see and do things that you just don’t have in the civilian sector.”

After her deployment, Parker returned to the U.S., earned a master’s degree in public health and forged a new career path as the Air Force’s Chief of International Health for Central Asia. In this new role, which she still fills, Parker assesses, organizes and executes health engagement initiatives throughout Central Asia. Her primary job is to oversee initiatives that provide humanitarian aid and help partner nations build their military medical capabilities.

“My chosen path is certainly not what I would have envisioned as a new graduate. Back then, I wanted to be a bedside ICU nurse forever,” Parker says. “Since then, I’ve discovered that every assignment or job brings new opportunities and experiences that can add to my skill set. My current job is really my dream job, and it has come with many successes, as well as challenges.” 

Parker, who was selected as one of 50 Golden Graduates during the School of Nursing’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2014, more recently received an Outstanding Young Alumni Award by the College of Health and Human Sciences.

In honor of their daughter and the role Purdue played in her success, Parker’s parents have established a scholarship for undergraduate nursing students at the University.

“Purdue was critical in my growth as a person and as a nurse. The School of Nursing taught me how to think critically and see the big picture of my patients and, later, of health systems and the population in general. A cornerstone of nursing is evidence-based practice, and Purdue taught me to always ask the ‘why’ when performing my duties. Purdue gave me the ability to flex and adapt as necessary in every situation and make the most of every opportunity I’m given.”