Dr. Barbara Pieper named 2023 College of Nursing Alumna of the Year

Countless nurses in Michigan and across the country have learned the fundamentals of their profession from Wayne State University College of Nursing alumna and Professor Emeritus Barbara Pieper (PhD ‘80, MSN ‘71). Over the course of her 50-year career, Pieper’s research, teaching and clinical expertise have had a profound impact on the college and the Detroit community.

On Wednesday, April 12, during the College of Nursing’s Urban Health Research Conference, Pieper will be recognized with the 2023 Alumna of the Year Award, honoring her impressive career and decades of dedication to nursing education and research at Wayne State.

“This college has had an impact on my life that I never could have imagined,” said Pieper, who met her husband of 51 years, David, in a graduate physiology course during her master’s program. “I was speechless when I received the call about this award.”

“Barb has been an invaluable asset to the College of Nursing,” said Dean Laurie Lauzon Clabo. “From her expertise in working with our students to her dedication to nursing, her research focus on an often-invisible population and her willingness to step into many leadership roles, she has significantly shaped our college and the profession.”

Pieper was raised in Muskegon, Michigan, where a high school volunteer program at a local hospital cemented her desire to become a nurse. She was awarded a tuition scholarship to Michigan State University and earned her BSN in 1970 before making her way to Detroit to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees at WSU.

“Wayne State allowed me to begin my MSN right after I graduated with my BSN,” she said. “The College of Nursing was always a big draw to me because of its location and the educational backgrounds of its faculty.”

Pieper completed her MSN in one year and joined the College of Nursing’s second PhD cohort in 1976. Her experiences as a Wayne State nursing student nurtured a passion for teaching and research, supported by her mentor and esteemed nurse leader, Virginia Cleland, PhD, RN, FAAN.

Pieper joined the College of Nursing faculty in 1980, tasked with developing a pathophysiology course. And while she was now a PhD-prepared nurse scientist leading her own program of research, Pieper never dreamed of giving up her role teaching Fundamentals of Nursing Practice to undergraduates — a course she taught until her retirement in 2019.

“Fundamentals is the love of my life when it comes to teaching,” she explained. “The concepts in fundamentals are applicable across nursing courses.”

In addition to her teaching, for 27 years, Pieper maintained a research and clinical focus providing wound care to persons who injected drugs — a focus that began at a time when research and treatment for these wounds was nearly nonexistent.

While serving a joint faculty-clinical appointment with Detroit Receiving Hospital-University Health Center, Pieper noticed the large number of patients with sores and venous ulcers on their legs from injecting drugs. Concerned, she suggested the creation of an outpatient wound clinic to better serve a population that often faced challenges finding outpatient care. The influx of patients caused her to delve deeper into research, working with hospital staff, clinic nurses and officials at drug treatment centers throughout Detroit to better understand the patients, help treat their wounds and collect data in the process.

“I had a cadre of drug treatment centers I was close to, and they knew I would work with these persons in a positive manner,” said Pieper.

Retired nursing professor Thomas Templin — who worked with Pieper on several studies and papers, including National Institutes of Health-funded research on leg changes that occur in drug users who inject — noted that Pieper’s reputation stretched well beyond the clinics.

“Barbara’s work ethic, her concern for the patients she cared for, the respectful way she treated all collaborators in her research, and her scientific rigor and insightfulness all stood out to me,” he said.

In January 2020, months after retiring from the College of Nursing, Pieper was named a Fulbright Scholar to the School of Nursing at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago. Unfortunately, her four-month program was cut short in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Pieper has relinquished her responsibilities as faculty member and researcher in retirement, she maintains an active role in health care and the community. In recent years, she has imparted her expertise as a trusted consultant on wound care for injection drug users, working with nurses in Baltimore and Philadelphia. She also consults about wound care with a street health care team in Detroit and volunteers at Ascension St. John Hospital on the vaccine clinical trial unit.

Barb and David Pieper

Outside of the health care field, Pieper gives her time to the Belle Isle Aquarium, where she’s learned about the Giant Pacific Octopus and Axolotl. She also volunteers at a local elementary school, working to help children develop socialization skills.

Receiving the Alumna of the Year award provides Pieper with a chance to look back on her career, what the college has given her and the broader impact of what she has given back. She and David established a scholarship in 2007 to recognize outstanding undergraduate students in the traditional BSN program and later endowed the Pieper Family Scholarship Fund in 2017. She also reviews resumes and participates in mock interviews with BSN seniors each year.

“This award means a great deal to me. It gave me a chance to reflect on what I was able to accomplish in collaboration with so many others and with the support and love of my wonderful family,” she said. “It has been terrific to see the growth of the college, the enrichment of what nursing students can learn in an urban setting, and how they can take those experiences and grow as leaders in our profession.”

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