In 2000, world leaders and preeminent scientists gathered at the White House to celebrate the completion of the first survey of the entire human genome—an accomplishment that President Clinton hailed at the time as the “most important, most wondrous map ever produced by human kind.”
From that year on, Ann Cashion, PhD, RN, FAAN, an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Executive Nurse Fellows program (2005-2008), was hooked on the promise and potential of genetics and genomics in nursing.
Then as a faculty member in the College of Nursing at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, she applied for a summer research training program in genetics and genomics at the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR), a division of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., and was selected to participate in the program’s inaugural cohort.
The experience introduced her to the field and changed the trajectory of her entire career; after a dozen years of her own research into genetics and genomics, she is now scientific director of the division of intramural research at NINR. “I came here in 2000 and I was just in awe,” she says. “Now, 14 years later, it’s where I work. I wouldn’t be here now if I had not had that positive experience all those years ago.”
After her summer experience in 2000, Cashion returned home and began researching the link between genetics, genomics, and the environment among organ transplant recipients. In a recent study, she combined emerging technologies and behavioral questionnaires to investigate the role of genes and environmental factors in patients who gained unhealthy weights after kidney transplants. Last year, she published the findings of her research, which showed that six genes, as well as certain environmental factors, increased the risk that kidney transplant recipients would become obese in the first year after transplantation. The results have the potential to improve health for post-transplant patients.
In her new role at NINR, Cashion oversees research that is conducted by nurse scientists at its Bethesda campus. This kind of “intramural research” comprises about 5 percent of NINR’s appropriated funding and usually involves the study of biological and behavioral data, such as measures of genomics, depression, past traumatic events, physical activity, and diet. “Because we’re nurses, we’re very aware of the environmental and clinical factors that affect our patients,” she says.
During her tenure, Cashion aims to mentor and support nurse scientists and encourage research using emerging methodologies such as epigenetics, which explores the influence of factors like food and stress on gene activity. “It’s fun. It’s all a puzzle. The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. And that curiosity is what drives all scientists.”