On DNA Day, Let's Encourage More Nurses to Pursue Genetics

Apr 25, 2012, 1:00 PM, Posted by

By Kathleen Hickey, EdD, FNP-BC, ANP-BC, FAAN, assistant professor, Columbia University School of Nursing and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholar. Hickey is president-elect of the International Society of Nurses in Genetics.


Every April, people around the world celebrate “DNA Day,” a commemoration of the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 and the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003. It’s an important day in scientific history, and its influence has spread far beyond the laboratory.

Genetics and nursing are closely linked, and many nurses—myself, included—have seen this connection firsthand. Long before we knew the full scope of the human genome, I worked as a nurse practitioner with cardiac patients. As I worked directly with many young patients, I learned that many of them had suffered a cardiac arrest, or lost a loved one to a cardiac arrhythmia. As more information became known about genetics, what I had seen in the clinical setting was confirmed—these patients were predisposed to these conditions by virtue of their DNA. Now I work in cardiogenetics, using my knowledge of genetics in combination with my skills as a nurse practitioner, to improve the outcomes for high-risk patients and prevent sudden cardiac death.

In 2009, I had the honor of being selected to attend the National Institute of Nursing Research’s Summer Genetic Institute. The two-month program, held at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), brought together nurses who were graduate students, faculty members, researchers, clinicians, and educators for intensive genetics training. There we were immersed in didactic lectures from NIH experts, engaged in hands-on bench experiments, and had the opportunity to develop a research proposal related to our own individual interests. This was critical to laying the foundation for my subsequent Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholar research in the area of cardiogenetics.

The knowledge I gained from the Summer Genetic Institute has certainly impacted my work in the field, and my forthcoming paper in Nursing and Health Sciences confirms that the training was beneficial to all who participated. As a member of an interdisciplinary team at Columbia University, I am better able to “speak the language of genetics” with my colleagues, care and educate patients and families, and engage in genetically-focused research endeavors because of this experience.

Having an in-depth understanding of genetics helps nurses provide better clinical care for their patients and families and engage actively in educational efforts. As providers of direct patient care, nurses have identified individuals who were unaware they had an underlying genetic conditions based on their family history, physical findings, or self-reported symptoms.

Genetics is now required to be incorporated into nursing education programs to ensure all nurses have a basic understanding of genetics. This has and will continue to foster new roles for nurses in genetics in the future.

Learn more about the RWJF Nurse Faculty Scholars program.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.