Mary Lee Roberts was already well-established in her career as a high-end audio engineer on the East Coast. She had a PhD from the University of California-Santa Barbara, was director of electro-acoustic music at Princeton University, freelanced for celebrities, wrote and recorded original compositions, and was cited in books and journals.

Then Sept. 11, 2001 happened.

“I was right there,” Roberts recalls. “That and other things made me rethink what I was doing with my life.”

It took some time, but that reassessment eventually led Roberts to the PhD program at the Washington State University College of Nursing, where she’s also a research associate.

“I’m doing the best thing I could possibly be doing at this exact moment,” she said recently.

Volunteering as an RN at a treatment facility for teenage girls with substance use disorder led her to her dissertation topic, looking at how relationships with friends and family influence those girls’ recovery. She’s worked on research projects focusing on medication assisted treatment for opioid use disorder, and on cannabis use by patients with persistent pain.

Most recently she’s worked with Associate Professor Denise Smart, director of the Master of Nursing program at the WSU College of Nursing, on her studies of exertional heat illness among members of the military.

Roberts is enthusiastic about her PhD studies at WSU.

“I had the opportunity to take numerous semesters of statistics with Dr. Celestina Barbosa-Leiker, which was the highlight of my classroom experience,” she said. “In working on research with (Research Professor) Dr. Tamara Odom-Maryon, (Assistant Professor) Dr. Marian Wilson, and now Dr. Smart, they’re showing me how to be a world-class researcher. There’s a very rich world of research that goes on around here.”

Her time at WSU has given her an even bigger gift, she added.

“Even when I was at Princeton I always had this imposter syndrome,” she said, referring to the self-doubt that plagues some high-achievers. “I totally felt that until last fall, and I attribute a lot of that confidence to the opportunities Dr. Smart has given me to step up to some tasks.”

Roberts expects to graduate next winter or spring, and hopes to continue her research and to stay in Spokane.

Her journey to nursing wasn’t traditional – she embarked on her Bachelor of Science in Nursing at Lewis-Clark State College in her 40s. She worked four years as a floor nurse after graduating before deciding to pursue a PhD in Nursing at WSU. It was the right move, though.

“As an audio engineer I was responsible for a $600,000 recording session,” Roberts said. “But as a nurse, I’m responsible for somebody’s life.”


Editor’s note: This article is part of a monthly feature series commemorating the World Health Organization’s designation of 2020 as the Year of the Nurse