Black History Month: Spotlight on Kenrick Cato, RN, PhD

February 12, 2020
Kenrick Cato, RN, PhD
Kenrick Cato. Photo: Columbia University School of Nursing.

As a child, Kenrick Cato was fascinated with hospitals. He used to beg his mother, now a retired nurse, to take him to work with her. But it took a stint as a computer programmer, multiple tours of Iraq as an infantryman, and a suggestion from a friend before he considered becoming a nurse himself.

After completing the Entry to Practice program at Columbia University School of Nursing, Cato worked as an oncology nurse and then finished his PhD at Columbia in 2014. Now an assistant professor of nursing, he combines his love of computers and health care to investigate how data science can improve patient safety, quality of care, and personal health. 

The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.


What was it about health care that interested you as a child?

As a child I used to go with my mother, a nurse, to the hospital, and I became fascinated by the ability to help people at a time of intense need. My family's from Guyana and being a nurse in Guyana is a highly vaunted position, so it was always very cool to me that my mother was a nurse.


When did you gravitate to technology and computers?

When I was in middle school, I was lucky enough to be in a gifted and talented program where you could take college-level math, science, and computer science classes. I took college-level computer classes and started programming. Ever since then I've been interested in technology and computer programming.

This was in the early '80s, so you didn't see a lot of technology, but I did have a friend whose mother was a cryptographer for a bank. I remember talking to her about what she did. She was from Barbados, and I thought it was pretty cool that an Afro-Caribbean woman was doing something like that, so she was kind of an inspiration.


How did you end up becoming a nurse?

It's a funny story. I actually was pre-med in college. Being an immigrant, the message was: Become a physician. But I decided in college that I wasn't really interested, so I took some time away from that path. I worked in a lab after college, I started doing some computer programming, and I started my own computer consulting company. 

Then I took a left turn and went into the Army for a while. When I got out of the Army, I was pretty sure that I wanted to pursue my interest in health care. I was talking to a friend of mine from college who's a nurse practitioner, and she said to me, “Well, why don't you just become a nurse practitioner?” It's funny because I'd never thought about becoming a nurse before, and I thought wow, that's a great idea.


Is there a project of yours that you’re really excited about now?

Yes, with Dr. Sarah Rossetti, our team is working on a NIH-funded research project that aims to design and evaluate the Communicating Narrative Concerns Entered by RNs (CONCERN) Clinical Decision Support system. The decision support system is built on a quantitative model that characterizes nurses’ expertise and worry and is predictive of patient deterioration based on the pattern and content of nursing interactions with the electronic medical record.


What do you like about your current position at Columbia?

Every day I get to do the two things that I find the most interesting in life, which is the intersection of technology and health care. As a professor now, I get to do my research, which obviously is very interesting to me, but I also get to work with students. I feel like all of those things are just really rewarding.