Innovator: Jessica Williams


Jessica Williams

Improving how the healthcare system identifies and responds to intimate partner violence
Jessica Williams, an assistant professor at the UNC School of Nursing, is helping to address a major problem that even many health providers are uncomfortable dealing with: intimate partner violence. Find out how she is developing a virtual simulation program aimed at giving health providers a safe and realistic online environment that will help them develop the skills to interact more comfortably and effectively with patients.

Q & A

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your research – what problems are you investigating and trying to solve?

I began my position as an Assistant Professor in the School of Nursing July 2017, prior to which I was on faculty at the University of Miami School of Nursing and Health Studies. The overarching goal of my research is to improve the role of the healthcare system in identifying and responding to intimate partner violence with a particular focus on elucidating disparities that exist in this process. The results of my research demonstrate how trauma and culture impact effective patient-provider communication and access to effective health services related to intimate partner violence.

My current research goals include the development of culturally-tailored interventions to improve patient-provider communication around intimate partner violence. Screening women for intimate partner violence is an important part of routine preventive health care services because it allows us to identify victims early and help them to access services they desperately need. Health providers, however, are often uncomfortable asking patients about intimate partner violence because they are unsure how to respond if a patient screens positive for abuse. To address this problem, I plan to develop a virtual simulation program that allows providers to interact with patients experiencing intimate partner violence in a safe, realistic online environment. Through this program, I hope to help providers develop skills to alleviate discomfort and increase confidence for screening and responding effectively to intimate partner violence within the healthcare setting.

How are you taking an entrepreneurial approach to your research – and how does that approach amplify the problem-solving capacity of your work?

The “entrepreneurial spirit” allows one to identify opportunities to translate innovations into viable products. This is often overlooked within the research community but critically important for wide-spread dissemination of the new knowledge created through research. In my own work, I see team-building and effective communication (or “pitching”) of my ideas as important entrepreneurial aspects that have amplified the problem-solving capacity of my research.

How have you built your team, and what role has working across disciplines or working with outside partners played?

Intimate partner violence is an extremely complex problem which cannot be addressed by one person or one discipline alone but requires teams with diverse perspectives working together. I have consistently worked with people from fields such as nursing, medicine, social work, psychology, criminal justice, gender studies, among others. The team I am building for my IPV simulation program is also very interdisciplinary, including experts in the fields of simulation, computer programming and communication.

What resources on campus have helped you on your innovation journey – and why?

The Chancellor’s Faculty Entrepreneurship Workshop was extremely valuable in helping me move forward my idea, which I have been considering for some time but was unsure of how to navigate the business aspects. I made more progress on my project during the 2 ½ day workshop than I have in the past year! The program format is engaging, encouraging instant application of concepts with personalized feedback from experts in the field. Learning how to effectively communicate with stakeholders and convey the value of my ideas were particularly useful skills that I will carry with me in the future.

In addition, I am a member of the current class (Class VII) of the Thorp Faculty Engaged Scholars Program. Participation in this program will provide me with knowledge and skills needed to build authentic relationships with communities and ensure my innovations are meaningful to their intended audiences.

Finally, as a new faculty member, I have relied on many of the resources offer through NC TRACS to support my research including professional development workshops, recruitment resources, and identification of funding opportunities.

What’s been your biggest challenge in getting your idea off the ground?

I think time (or lack thereof) is a challenge for everyone! Other than time, navigating the business aspects and seeing the entrepreneurial value of my research have always been limiters in taking the next step. That is why I am grateful for the resources, such as the Entrepreneurship Workshop, offered through UNC because they provide support in overcoming these barriers.

How do you balance your full-time teaching and research responsibilities with your interest in innovation and entrepreneurship?

I do not view my teaching and research responsibilities as separate from my interests in innovation and entrepreneurship. I see these as being necessarily integrated and try to recognize the innovation and entrepreneurship potential of my scholarly endeavors.

What advice would you give to other faculty members who want to hone their own entrepreneurial skills and put them into action?

I have never considered my work to be “entrepreneurial” so, at first, I was unsure if the workshop would be applicable to me. This was one of the most valuable workshops in which I have participated because it allowed me to view my scholarship from a different perspective and think about my work in new, innovative ways. I now have a broader understanding of entrepreneurship and how the principles covered during the workshop directly relate to my own work. The information provided through the workshop is beneficial to any faculty looking to advance their scholarship in new and innovative ways.