RWJF Alum Takes Pioneering Role in Nursing and Genetics

    • September 27, 2012

Nurse scientist Kathleen Hickey is blazing a new trail on the frontier of health and health care: genetics and genomics.

As the incoming president of the International Society of Nurses in Genetics (ISONG), Hickey, EdD, FNP-BC, ANP-BC, hopes to elevate the role of genetics-trained nurses and integrate nursing into the delivery of genetic health care services. To do that, she plans to promote the evolving role of nursing in genetics and genomics in the United States and abroad and support research into the role of genetics-trained nurses in teaching, clinical practice and research.

“When people think of genetics, they don’t think of genetically trained nurses,” says Hickey, an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholars program (2009-2012) and assistant professor at the Columbia University School of Nursing. “But nurses are key team players in genetics-based health care. We need to make people aware of the role genetically trained nurses are playing now and in the future of health care.”

Hickey takes the helm of ISONG in October. The organization was founded a quarter century ago, some three decades after James Watson and Francis Crick famously unveiled the structure of DNA, the chromosomal “double-helix” that carries genetic information from parent to child.

That discovery eventually led to a 13-year international effort to identify all of the 20,000-25,000 genes in human DNA and determine the sequences of the 3 billion chemical base pairs that make up DNA. The “Human Genome Project” was completed in 2003, and scientists are now analyzing the rich trove of data so they can understand the implications for health and health care.

Health care professionals are beginning to translate the findings of that research into practice, and nurses have a unique and critical role to play in that process, Hickey says. Nurses spend more time working directly with patients than other providers and are well-positioned to assess the possibility of underlying, inherited genetic-based conditions in patients and their family members, Hickey says. Genetics-trained nurses can also improve their patients’ quality of life and provide counseling and emotional support services to patients and their loved ones who may be diagnosed with a genetically based condition.

“Genetics health care is an interdisciplinary team approach, and nursing has a seat at the table,” she says.

Hickey’s passion for genetics developed over time. She decided to become a nurse after watching nurses care for different members of her family, including her father, who suffered from cardiovascular disease. She earned her baccalaureate in nursing at Hunter College of the City University of New York and then went on to earn her master’s degree in nurse administration at New York University and her doctoral degree in applied physiology at Columbia University.

Suspicions Spark Interest in Genetics

During this period, she also served as a nurse in the coronary intensive care unit at a New York hospital. While there, she noticed that some of her patients reported high rates of cardiovascular disease and sudden cardiac death within their families. She began to suspect that genetics predisposed certain people to cardiovascular disease and arrhythmias, especially when she saw problems in patients who were otherwise healthy—suspicions that were confirmed years later by cardiac genetics researchers.

“When I saw young individuals in their 30s having heart attacks, I began to suspect that genetics was playing a role,” Hickey remembers. “I would ask them about their family history, and they would say, ‘Yes, I’ve had five uncles who died of a heart attack,’ or something along those lines. That really sparked my interest in genetics.”

Her interest in the field grew, and she began to work as a researcher and clinician at the Cardiogenetics Program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital at Columbia University Medical Center, which provides genetic evaluation and continued care for individuals and families with known or suspected cardiogenetic conditions.

In 2009 Hickey was selected to participate in a two-month intensive course in genetics and nursing at the National Institute of Nursing Research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). At the institute she developed a research proposal in cardiogenetics that led to her selection as an RWJF Nurse Faculty Scholar. The $350,000 award allowed her to conduct innovative research on cardiac genetic mutations that may predispose individuals to a higher possibility of cardiac arrhythmias. Hickey hopes to enable health care professionals to learn more about the association between cardiac arrhythmias and the presence and absence of various cardiogenetic findings. She is now analyzing her data.

Hickey also recently published a study in Nursing & Health Sciences that showed that nurses who participated in the two-month genetics training program at the NIH put their new knowledge to good use in the health care system. Respondents to the online survey, administered in 2010 to graduates of the program over the previous decade, said they incorporated genetics knowledge into daily clinical, academic or research practices since completing the program.

“As a member of an interdisciplinary team at Columbia University, I am better able to ‘speak the language of genetics’ with my colleagues. I care for and educate patients and families; and engage in genetically-focused research endeavors because of this experience,” Hickey wrote in a recent post on the RWJF Human Capital Blog.

Genetics occupies a small corner of the nation’s vast health care system, but Hickey sees a time in the not-too-distant future when it will be a common part of the health care experience.  “Just as you have routine labs now, I’m sure in the not-so-distant future we’ll have routine genetic screening panels too.”

Learn more about the RWJF Nurse Faculty Scholars program.

For an overview of RWJF scholar and fellow opportunities, visit

Kathleen Hickey

Kathleen Hickey

RWJF Nurse Faculty Scholars alumna

Iincoming President, International Society of Nurses in Genetics