Dec. 2, 2019

Postdoc associate brings love of science and genetics to nursing

Sarah Dewell says nurses have crucial role in genetics and precision health

As a child growing up in BC, Dr Sarah Dewell (PhD’19, BN’07, MSc’03, BSc’99) vividly recalls beachcombing and identifying sea creatures by their scientific name. She watched her marine biologist and college instructor mother prepare lectures by projecting slides of cancerous cells on the living-room wall and dissecting squid on the kitchen table.  Her exposure to health care was equally dramatic when her four-year-old sister was diagnosed with cancer.

“I spent a considerable amount of time in the hospital with her and then, later on, I volunteered in various hospitals in the lower mainland during high school and university. I was always interested in human health and decided to pursue cell biology and genetics for my first undergrad degree.”

The progression to nursing seems to be a natural evolution and underpins Dewell’s current focus on genetics and precision health.  While completing her Master of Science degree in medical genetics at the University of British Columbia  and working in labs, she discovered she wanted to work more with people. “I guess I wanted to know more about the human experience of the conditions that I had only read about and seen in animal models,” she explains. “I applied to nursing at the U of C and the rest is history.”

As a nursing student, Dewell was excited to find articles indicating that nursing in Canada was going to include genetic competencies. “Of course, that didn’t happen,” Dewell says, “and as time passed and I saw nothing happening, I decided that it was time for me to do something about genetics and nursing in Canada myself.”

Earlier this month, Dewell attended the International Society of Nurses in Genetics (ISONG) World Congress (she is currently co-chair of their Global Membership Committee) where her enthusiasm for international collaboration and growth in this field was heightened. “My impression from the ISONG conference is that there is so much potential for nurses in genomics and that as genomic science advances the nursing research that is happening is more and more complex, but remains focused on benefits to health outcomes for clients.”

Dewell with international delegates at ISONG 2019.

Dewell with international delegates at ISONG 2019.

From left, Dr. Erika Maria Monteiro Santos (Brazil), Dewell (Canada), Dr. Sang-Eun Jun (South Korea), Dr. Kyoko Murakami (Japan), Dr. Sivia Barnoy (Israel), Dr. Emma Tonkin (Wales), Dr. Kathy Sparbel (USA) at ISONG 2019 in San Antonio, Texas.

Dewell is also a member of the Global Genomics Nursing Alliance, a newer organization promoting the advancement and integration of genomics into all nursing practice.  To support her belief that undergraduate nurses need more genetics content in their education, Dewell formed Linkage (Linking Nursing Knowledge and Genomics), which will launch in early 2020.

“The idea came out of my discussion with undergraduate students during my doctoral research. Students could see the link between genetics and health, but didn’t have examples in theory or practice of how genetics connected with their nursing education and future practice,” she says. Her hope is that, with curriculum changes, UCalgary Nursing can be a leader in genetic/genomic nursing education, practice and research in Canada and globally.

Dewell’s one-year postdoc position focuses on curriculum innovation and evidence-based nursing education where she is mainly involved in the undergraduate curriculum renewal projects within the faculty.

“I am excited to work with the core curriculum team to build upon the strengths we currently have here and develop a curriculum that will enable growth of the profession.”

For Dewell, that curriculum growth naturally will include a strong foundation in genetic and genomic knowledge as genomic medicine is inevitably changing health care.

“It is essential for nurses to continue to provide appropriate holistic care with a focus on disease prevention and health promotion,” she says. “We are already caring for patients with a genetic component to their health concerns every day and we need to be prepared to consider genetics and genomics with every patient interaction and help with the implementation of precision health into practice. I believe that precision health is a natural extension and enhancement of the personalized care that nurses already provide.