Professor Violeta Lopez left her position at the NUS Alice Lee Centre for Nursing Studies in June. She reflects on a healthcare career spanning many decades.


Professor Violeta Lopez accepted an appointment at the National University of Singapore (NUS) thinking it would be the last stop in her career as a nurse, researcher and educator.


When she left NUS in June, however, she hadn't hung up her many hats yet. She has a few more stops to make and many more people to help, before she calls it a day.


With a career that spans 45 years and several continents, Prof Lopez is a nurse’s nurse – a much sought-after educator, researcher and consultant in global nursing circles. Now that she has left her full-time position at NUS, she has accepted several part-time appointments at universities in the Philippines, China and Australia, where she will teach, conduct research and help these institutions strengthen their academic programmes and build up their research excellence.


“I don’t think I will ever stop working, as there are many organisations and causes that I can still contribute to,” says Prof Lopez.


One of these is giving back to nursing in her homeland, the Philippines, under the auspices of the government’s Balik (Return) Scientist Program, which aims to draw Filipino scientists back home to set up their own research centres or teach, she says.


She also hopes to contribute to the philanthropic work started by her late mother at Suhay (“Strong Support”), a charity organisation that provides medical care and scholarships to rural communities, and financial aid to an orphanage.



It was her mother who inspired her interest in nursing, says Professor Lopez, while her late father, a university professor, was the role model for her academic career.


“I was brought up helping people,” she says. “When I was young, I would follow my mother to the rural areas to participate in the array of good causes her charity organisation was involved in. At a young age, nursing and community service quickly became an interest of mine,” she adds.


She earned a Bachelor’s degree in Nursing from the University of the Philippines and worked as a nurse for two years before responding to a call for nursing-trained volunteers by the US Aid for International Development in the mid-70s. “It was something I had never done before and I was intrigued by the opportunity to serve in a developing country, so I resigned from my job and signed up,” she recalls.


The Agency sent her to a provincial hospital in Laos to provide community nursing care in collaboration with a team of doctors, nurses, nutritionists, pathologists and dentists. She also helped to train the local nurses to take over after the team’s departure. The stint was the highlight of her clinical career as it exposed her to the challenges of nursing in an underdeveloped country. “The limited resources forced us to look at innovative practices to provide quality care,” she says.


She vividly remembers taking unconventional means of transportation – from rafting to riding on elephants – to reach the remote villages across the Mekong river.


The many lessons she learnt on transcultural nursing would later become one of her research interests.

In transcultural nursing, we must be mindful of a community’s cultural practices, beliefs and values. I learnt to respect the old ways of treatment and introduce the new ones with sensitivity...

“In transcultural nursing, we must be mindful of a community’s cultural practices, beliefs and values. I learnt to respect the old ways of treatment and introduce the new ones with sensitivity,” she says.


“I understood then that alternative medicine and non-pharmacological interventions stood the test of time because they increased adherence to treatment plans,” she adds.


Australian academia


After the team’s evacuation from Laos as a result of escalating tensions from the Vietnam war, Prof Lopez moved to Australia where she worked as a critical care nurse at Sydney Hospital.


In those years, she completed her Master of Professional Education and Training from Deakin University and Master of Nursing Administration from the University of New South Wales. She also earned a PhD from the University of Sydney. Her career has been an interesting blend of clinical work, academia and research ever since.


Prof Lopez believes all nursing academics should hold joint appointments in higher education and clinical settings in order to be credible teachers who can bridge the theory-practice gap. She continued to practise after she started teaching at the Australian National University and University of Sydney. The only gaps occurred when she left Australia to work at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 1997 for seven years, and at NUS in 2013 for six years. “Students value teachers who can teach what is practised in the clinical arena. For me, it was the best of both worlds when I could blend my clinical and teaching practices in one piece,” she reflects.

Prof Lopez returned to Australia in 2005 to take on headship of the School of Nursing at the Australian Catholic University, in her first stint in management.


International assignments


She has made many contributions to developing countries as a curriculum development consultant. In 1988 and 1989, she was assigned by the Australian Agency for International Development to assist the Universiti Sains Malaysia to develop its Diploma, Bachelor’s and Masters nursing curriculum. She was also invited by the Oman Ministry of Health to develop a critical care curriculum for the nursing school in Muscat, and by the School of Nursing at Aga Khan University in Pakistan to conduct research workshops.


In 1993, she spent two years in Jordan teaching at the Applied Science University and also collaborated in research with the University of Jordan and Jordan University of Science and Technology. Since 2007, she has been a Chutian Scholar at the College of Nursing at Hubei University of Medicine.


Prof Lopez’s research interests are in transcultural nursing, cancer symptom management, caregiving, psychoeducational interventions, as well as the development, translation and psychometric evaluation of research instruments. She has obtained over S$5 million in research grants and published 300 journal articles, books and book chapters. She is a peer reviewer and is on the editorial boards of many international medical and nursing refereed journals.


In 2018, her efforts were internationally recognised when she was inducted into the Sigma Theta Tau International Nurse Researcher Hall of Fame. She also received the Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award from President Obama in 2017.


Because of her deep research expertise, Prof Lopez has successfully supervised 25 international PhD students, including eight from NUS Nursing and two MPhil students from NUS Dentistry. As a result of her international reputation, she has also been invited to be an external examiner for 60 PhD students from eight countries.


“My highlight as an educator is that my PhD students have now graduated and are enjoying success as professors, consultants and published researchers. My greatest joy has been to see them succeed,” she says, adding that many still keep in touch with her about their progress.


NUS legacy


During her time at NUS Nursing, she helped the Centre to establish its SalUtogenic Nursing (SUN) Research programme and assisted it to be designated as an ICN-accredited centre for research and development. It is one of 15 in the world.


Though she will leave NUS Nursing, her work here continues through collaboration with colleagues in research, publishing and co-writing books and book chapters, as well as helping them develop their international network.


“My advice to researchers is to build their own research programme, track record, and most importantly, their national and international network. With these three pre-requisites, they will find success in obtaining competitive research funding,” she says.



Pic on the right: Prof Lopez received the Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award from then President Barack Obama in 2017