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Houston Chronicle Salute to Nurses scholarship winners Jessica Carrillo and Constanza Veronica Moreno.

Houston’s Top Students and Nurses

Two students, three faculty honored

The Houston Chronicle this year honored three faculty members at Cizik School of Nursing as among the city’s Top 200 nurses. Also, for the second year in a row, two of the three scholarships awarded citywide through the Salute to Nurses program went to Cizik School of Nursing students.

Congratulations to nurses Juane K. Alexander, MSN, RN; Meagan Whisenant, PhD, RN; and Higinio Fernández-Sánchez, BScN, MN, RN, and to undergraduate nursing students Jessica Carrillo and Constanza Veronica-Moreno.

Juane K. Alexander, MSN, RN

Alexander is a student-favorite instructor in Cizik School of Nursing’s Department of Undergraduate Studies. Her Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) students put her name forward for “Salute to Nurses,” and previous colleagues nominated her several times to receive the John P. McGovern Outstanding Teacher of the Year award.

“I think it’s probably because I am one of them,” said Alexander, who has been a student as well as a faculty member at Cizik School of Nursing. She earned a BSN and a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) on the education track from the school and hopes to defend her PhD dissertation this year. Alexander’s doctoral research focuses on pediatric cancer experiences on Saint Lucia, the Caribbean island where she was born.

Pacesetter program students in both the accelerated BSN and the RN to BSN programs meet with Alexander, who teaches community health nursing clinical and didactic courses, as well as adult and reproductive health care clinicals and high acuity simulations.

Alexander came to Houston for her education after serving two years in the U.S. Army as an electrician. Recently, she drew on her personal experience as part of a team led by Barbara Hekel, PhD, MPH, RN, assistant professor in the department, that developed a case study to be included in the American Association of Colleges of Nursing Essentials Toolkit. The scenario follows a disabled veteran and his family and is used to teach nursing students about population health and social determinants of health.

Higinio Fernández-Sánchez, BScN, MN, RN

Fernández-Sánchez is a rising star in nursing research at Cizik School of Nursing. He joined the faculty as an assistant professor after earning his PhD in nursing in 2023. By then, he had already received dozens of awards, published papers, and conference presentations to his name, and he serves as a reviewer for six journals published in English and Spanish. 

He joined Cizik School of Nursing in 2021 as a research nurse in the Come As You Are (CAYA) research study, led by Diane Santa Maria, DrPH, MSN, RN, dean of the school. In that role, he recruited and managed more than 30 youth experiencing homelessness, delivering a three-month behavioral intervention that employs motivational interviewing and shared decision-making aimed at HIV prevention.

His then-supervisor, Jennifer Jones, MPH, nominated Fernández-Sánchez for “Salute to Nurses” recognition. She noted the impact he has already had on nursing science along with his work ethic, passion, and intellect.

“Higinio has an unwavering commitment to serve at-risk populations,” Jones said.

A native of Veracruz, Mexico, Fernández-Sánchez spent his childhood in Tyler, Texas, where he earned an associate degree in science from Tyler Junior College. He returned to Mexico to receive a BSN and MSN from Universidad Veracruzana. Fernández-Sánchez earned his PhD from the University of Alberta in Canada. 

Meagan Whisenant, PhD, APRN

When the White House called in January 2023, Whisenant and her colleagues in a multisite study answered.

Whisenant, who was then the John S. Dunn Distinguished Professor in Oncology Nursing, and Jessica T. Jones, MD, are the Houston-area co-principal investigators on the study “Comprehensive Outcomes for After Cancer Health (COACH): The Feasibility and Impact of an mHealth Augmented Coaching Program for Self-Management in Cancer Survivors Who Have Completed Primary Cancer Therapy.” Sponsored by Pack Health, a subsidiary of Quest Diagnostics, the study is testing an intervention that includes weekly calls and electronic delivery of health and wellness information to patients who have completed primary therapy for a variety of cancers.

Investigators in five states are recruiting 500 patients. In the Houston branch of the study, supported by Gilead Sciences, Jones and Whisenant will work with 150 women affected by metastatic breast cancer who have been treated locally. Jones is an assistant professor in the Division of Hematology/Oncology at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston.

The wide-ranging study drew the attention of Catharine Young, PhD, assistant director for Cancer Moonshot Engagement and Policy in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. On January 19, 2023, Jones and Whisenant joined collaborators from other sites on a call with Young to discuss the study.

“Digital health coaching offers a scalable approach to meeting supportive care needs of cancer survivors in their home environment, beyond the clinical care setting,” Whisenant said. “We are excited to explore the usefulness of digital health coaching for self-management of symptoms and general wellness.”

Whisenant joined Cizik School of Nursing’s Department of Research in 2020 and is principal or co-principal investigator on more than $1.4 million in research grants funded by federal, state, and private entities that focus on symptoms associated with chronic disease and behavioral interventions for improving the patient and family caregiver symptom experience. She holds a PhD in nursing from the University of Utah College of Nursing, an MSN on the family nurse practitioner track from Cizik School of Nursing, and a BSN from New York University College of Nursing. She has also completed four postgraduate programs, including one at McWilliams School of Biomedical Informatics at UTHealth Houston.

Jessica Carrillo
Pacesetter BSN student

Carrillo met her mentor, Cizik School of Nursing alumna Melissa Lopez, BSN, RN, as a 14-year-old patient being treated for cancer at Texas Children’s Hospital. Nine years later Lopez, who received the Houston Chronicle Salute to Nurses scholarship in 2013, paid it forward by nominating Carrillo for the award.

“It’s where I found my passion,” Carrillo says of her year-long experience with osteosarcoma. “Melissa was my example of what I wanted to be as a nurse.”

Through chemotherapy, infections, and surgery, Lopez encouraged Carrillo and pushed her not to give up. The pair developed a bond, and Lopez brought Carrillo to visit Cizik School of Nursing and provided tips on succeeding in the accelerated Pacesetter Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program.

“Even during the hardest part of her treatment, Jessica was always kind and thoughtful,” Lopez said. “Soon after the end of her treatment, she expressed her desire to become a pediatric oncology nurse. Knowing that she was the first in her family to pursue a college degree, I volunteered to be her mentor. I am so very proud to see all that she has accomplished and can’t wait to call her a co-worker.”

Carrillo is finishing up her second semester while working part-time as a personal care assistant at a pediatric hospital, where she sometimes helps children with cancer.

“I can’t imagine going to work and doing something more amazing and rewarding than helping oncology patients,” Carrillo said.

Constanza Veronica-Moreno
Pacesetter BSN student

“As a nurse, you care for whoever comes to you,” Veronica-Moreno said of her choice of nursing as a health care profession. She has seen firsthand what that means for uninsured families.

Veronica-Moreno’s family moved to Houston from Guanajuato, Mexico, when she was six years old.

“Growing up here, we never had health insurance until the past two years,” she said. “I saw that there were many people like me in the same situation.” Sometimes her family visited local clinics, and at other times they traveled back to Mexico for health care.

Before Veronica-Moreno graduated in May, she had lined up a job in the emergency department at Memorial Hermann – Texas Medical Center, where she looked forward to working with a widely diverse patient population.

She was an active member of the Cizik School of Nursing Student Government Organization, serving as an S2 cohort representative. “It’s been a wonderful experience,” she said. “I have gotten to know the faculty, and I have really been able to see how well structured the program is.”

(Banner image: Houston Chronicle Salute to Nurses scholarship winners Jessica Carrillo and Constanza Veronica Moreno.)

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Juane K. Alexander, Meagan Whisenant, and Higinio Fernández-Sánchez.
Also honored among the city’s top 200 nurses by the Houston Chronicle were Juane K. Alexander, MSN, RN; Meagan Whisenant, PhD, RN; and Higinio Fernández-Sánchez, BScN, MN, RN.