Joan Lappe: Accepting the Creighton job was ‘like a dream’

May 13, 2024

Joan Lappe, associate dean of research for the College of Nursing, is a nationally renowned researcher. How did she get started? And what does she most appreciate about Creighton? Lappe discusses it all in this Q&A.

Featured Testimonial About Creighton University

We recently caught up with four retiring faculty members, including Joan Lappe, MS’85, PhD, to learn more about the relationships and experiences that were most meaningful during their time on campus. Lappe, who retired in May, worked at Creighton for nearly 40 years.

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Joan Lappe
College of Nursing

Was the pursuit of a master’s degree what brought you to Creighton?

“Actually, it did. I took a position with Metro Community College and taught for 18 years. I loved teaching there. But I knew if I wanted to stay in nursing education, I needed an advanced degree. I had enrolled in Creighton's master's program and while I was a student, several of my classmates were faculty. When a position opened, they encouraged me to apply. ... It was like a dream. So exciting. I tell my kids and grandkids that one of the most exciting days of my life is when I put my parking sticker on my bumper and it said, ‘Creighton University faculty.’”

How did Creighton help you find your calling?

“There are places where a nurse, especially 40 years ago in a school of medicine, wouldn't get very far. But I never felt that as long as I could show I could do something. It didn't matter if I was a nurse or a woman or whatever. I knew how to run projects, and that's what I was initially hired to do. But like I say, I love information. And when I saw that the researchers were always talking about science, while I was checking off boxes, that was very motivating.”



Did you experience success as a researcher right away?

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“It started slowly with little things. I think my first grant was for $300. My biggest one was for about $5 million. So, I worked my way up. But you had to start small.

“One study funded by the Department of Defense stands out. I was the principal investigator. We wanted to see if we could prevent stress fractures by giving Navy recruits calcium and Vitamin D. Our department's focus was osteoporosis, which is older adults, but stress fractures are similar — in that the bones aren't able to sustain the loads that they need to.

“With what we proposed, we didn't even think we would support our hypothesis because we had only eight weeks to give these young people calcium and Vitamin D supplements. But it worked. We had a 20% reduction in fractures in our cohort.”

Incredible. Were there other research projects that surprised you?

“In one study, we were giving calcium and Vitamin D to older women to see if we could prevent fractures. There were about 1,800 rural Nebraskans in that five-year study. But midway through, the first drug for osteoporosis was approved by the FDA. So, of course, ethically we couldn't keep people on a study if they had bone density that indicated they were at high risk of fracture. Some of our participants stopped participating and took medication, so we didn't find any difference there.

“But what a researcher does when you've put that much money and energy into a project — you’ve got to find something. I was just looking through the data and I found out that we didn't decrease fractures, but we decreased the incidence of cancer.

“So based on that finding, I submitted a grant to the National Institutes of Health. We did the same thing, only studied 2,300 women in 35 Nebraska counties. We found we decreased the incidence of all types of cancer by 33%.”

Certainly you’ll miss those moments when research uncovers something new. What else will you look back on fondly?

“There are a lot of things I'll miss. For me, the intellectual stimulation and the intellectual conversations ... where you're brainstorming and trying to strategize and think about things. And of course, the people. There are great people who work here. Highly motivated people. I'm so spoiled to be in this Christian environment, and no matter what our backgrounds are, everybody that stays buys into the mission.”