UNMC 2023 Scientist Laureate: Michele Balas, PhD

Michele Balas, PhD

Michele Balas, PhD

This profile is part of a series to highlight the researchers who will be honored at a ceremony today (Nov. 9) for UNMC’s Scientist Laureate, Research Leadership, Distinguished Scientist, New Investigator and Community Service to Research Award recipients.

Scientist Laureate

The UNMC Scientist Laureate Award is the highest honor UNMC bestows to researchers.

Michele Balas, PhD, is a nurse.

She’s also the UNMC 2023 Scientist Laureate.

And she is getting a kick out of that.

“This is the first time a nurse has been named the Scientist Laureate,” Dr. Balas said. “I am thrilled that a nurse is receiving this award – it just happens to be me, but I’m telling you, there are 10 behind me who could be here in the coming years.

“Many people unfortunately still seem to have this perception of nurses being physician handmaidens. We currently are equals in terms of importance to patient care, and I will say equals – I do not believe in the hierarchy.

“But even worse than that, the perception is that nursing isn’t a science, and that’s not true. Nursing science has been around for many years. We ask critical questions that are important to patients. And these questions get answered because of nurses and the work that nurses have done.”

Dr. Balas’ own research focuses on improving the care and quality of outcomes for older people when they’re in the intensive care unit.

“I specifically look into developing interventions to help them with the common symptoms that they experience – things like pain, anxiety and confusion. My research right now is focused on helping ICU clinicians, empowering them to be able to do the interventions that we know will help people.”

Dr. Balas’ most recent NIH-funded study plays into that focus. The two-pronged, three-site study will examine the outcomes of two ICU interventions.

The first: ICU units will be provided with a newly designed patient dashboard for the ICU. The dashboard will track interventions given to the patient to help get them off ventilators and manage their symptoms better.

The second: Other ICUs will receive, instead of the tricked-out dashboard, an extra nurse.

“It’s actually my dream study,” Dr. Balas said. “We don’t know which one’s going to be more effective – I have my own suspicions – but my hypothesis is they’re both going to be better than what we’re doing now.”

Clinical research always has been Dr. Balas’ area of expertise.

“The whole reason that I’m doing research is because of my experiences in the clinical setting,” she said. “I was a practicing ICU nurse for many, many, many years working in the intensive care unit. And I had so many encounters where I saw patients suffer for no reason. Many of those patients were older adults who were experiencing delirium.”

In those days, Dr. Balas recalled, restraints still were used. Patients were sometimes sedated or over-sedated. And often, health professionals would say, “It’s okay. They’re old. They’re in the hospital. They get confused. It’s all right. You know, it’ll go away before they go home.”

“We now know it’s a very bad thing when a person gets confused in the hospital,” Dr. Balas said. “In fact, we no longer even refer to this as confusion; it is now more appropriately referred to as delirium. We are now finding that one single episode of delirium in the hospital could cause long-term brain damage comparable to Alzheimer’s disease.”

A tragic experience while she was an ICU nurse left Dr. Balas a committed opponent of overmedication, especially to deal with confused or frightened patients.

“I went back to school and got my PhD from the University of Pennsylvania and did my research on delirium. During my postdoc at University of Pennsylvania, we started looking at the long-term outcomes associated with delirium.”

That work, and more that followed, eventually led her to UNMC and this year’s recognition.

“The thing that makes me the happiest is that a nurse is getting recognized with this award, and that people will start thinking of nursing as a science and recognize that nurses can be researchers and lead research teams.

“We have our boots-on-the-ground work, and grants are coming in. We are great at so many things here at UNMC, all our biocontainment work, for example, thank God they’re doing that stuff, right? But clinically focused, bedside-based research will always be a passion of mine, and we’re making leaps and bounds as an institution here because of the great scientists that we have, including in the college of nursing.

“You mark my words. You watch the UNMC College of Nursing. We have talented researchers, and there are great things ahead.”


  1. Debra Romberger says:

    Congrats on this well-deserved award–you are an amazing scientist!

  2. Tom O’Connor says:

    Congrats, Dr. Balas. Love your attitude about the quality of research going on in the CON. It’s great to see nursing receive this recognition. Kudos to you for this pioneering achievement.

  3. Ann Berger says:

    Bravo, Dr. Balas on receiving this recognition! Your explanation of your research is a great example of nursing research focused on patient and family physical, mental, and psychological outcomes. I strongly agree the future is bright for CON scientists!!

  4. John S Davis says:

    Congratulations, Dr. Balas, Dorothy Hodges Olson Distinguished Professor of Nursing at the college!

  5. Brigette Vaughan says:

    Congratulations and thank you for continuing to be a nursing leader!

  6. Mariya A Kovaleva says:

    Congratulations, Dr. Balas!

  7. jennifer.cera@unmc.edu says:

    Congratulations to all! Thank you, Dr. Balas, Mollard and Alonso for being true nurse scientist pioneers!

  8. JY says:

    Congratulations, Dr. Balas! Thank you for your contributions to improve patient care at ICU.

  9. Nicole Shonka says:

    Congratulations Dr Balas, your research in patient care at the bedside is so important as is the example you are setting for all of us.

  10. Roslyn Mannon says:

    So appreciative of your work and your achievement in this award!!

  11. Heidi Keeler says:

    Dr. Balas’ work has lead to our own Gero Nurse Prep course diving deep into the types of delirium that affects older adults, and how this is often misinterpreted as dementia. The dangers of not intervening, particularly for the missed and untreated hypoactive delirium…the impact of her work is so far reaching. So deserved! Many, many congratulations to her!

  12. Leah says:

    Great job Niedfelt Nursing Research Center researchers! Well deserved indeed.

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