MU freshman nursing student researches lymphedema

As the Sinclair School of Nursing’s first Discovery Fellow, Rachael Hillyer was awarded $2,000 and the opportunity to conduct research with an MU professor.
Rachael Hillyer is a freshman Discovery Fellow and works as a research assistant to Dr. Jane Armer in the School of Nursing. Rachael is pursuing a degree in nursing.

Freshman Rachael Hillyer made history as the first Sinclair School of Nursing student to be selected for the Discovery Fellows Program.

The program, one of the MU Honors College’s longest-running fellowship programs, awards 46 $2,000 scholarships to first- and second-year students each year with an ACT composite score of 33 or higher who are looking to become more involved in the research community, according to the Honors College website.

Research experience with the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis during high school inspired Hillyer to apply for the program upon her admission to the Honors College.

“I felt like [Discovery Fellows] would be cool because I figured, ‘I kind of have a background with this,’” Hillyer said. “I didn’t really know if I was going to get it or not, but I figured it was worth a shot.”

The Discovery Fellows Program provides freshmen with the unique opportunity to get involved with research as undergraduate students.

“This is the only program that we offer that lets a freshman dive in on day one,” said Ava Corn, scholars and fellows coordinator at the Honors College. “They get a faculty mentor, and usually they get to connect during Summer Welcome or the first week of school. It’s a highly personalized learning experience that you really can’t get elsewhere.”

The program matches fellows with professors conducting research to serve as faculty mentors. Hillyer was matched with nursing professor Jane Armer.

Armer and Hillyer work together 8-10 hours a week in researching lymphedema, a disease that causes swelling in the arms and legs. It’s most common in people who have undergone cancer treatment.

“Last semester, I did a lot of interview transcriptions with breast cancer patients [about] their experience with lymphedema after being in remission from cancer and then going back to work with that,” Hillyer said.

Hillyer has visited breast cancer support groups to provide progress updates on the research and spread the word about Armer’s recent work: an app for lymphedema patients to help track their symptoms and communicate with doctors.

“We’re ready to take [development of the app] to the next step, but we’re seeking funding,” Armer said. “In the meantime, Rachael is helping us disseminate information about what we do.”

Hillyer said she has great respect for Armer as both a professional and a person.

“I look forward to every time that I meet with her,” Hillyer said of Armer. “I really can’t imagine doing this type of fellowship with anyone else. She has made it so enjoyable … She has a heart of gold, and you can tell just from talking to her.”

Armer had similar praise for Hillyer.

“I very much enjoy working with Rachael,” Armer said. “She’s truly delightful and is always positive in responding and great at problem-solving. It’s been a very nice, reciprocal relationship.”

Outside of research, Hillyer has found more ways to get involved on campus. She is a member of a club soccer team and Pi Beta Phi sorority. Hillyer also serves as an Honors College ambassador, a role she hopes to use to encourage other aspiring nurses and potential Discovery Fellows.

“I’ll probably talk a lot about Discovery Fellows when I meet with [visiting] families,” she said. “I think a lot of people would meet the requirements to get into the Honors College, but they just don’t realize how much of an advantage it is to be in that program, especially when you’re doing nursing.”

After college, Hillyer hopes to return to St. Louis to work at Barnes-Jewish Hospital as a bedside nurse. Armer believes the Discovery Fellows Program will help Hillyer reach her goals.

Edited by Morgan Smith |

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