On July 1, 2012, Dr. Donna K. Arnett began her one year term as president of the American Heart Association (AHA), the first time an epidemiologist was selected for the position. Dr. Arnett is the chair of the Department of Epidemiology in the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She is a fellow of ACE, and is also currently serving as advisor for the Associate Member Committee of ACE. Dr. Arnett obtained a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of South Florida and then later a master’s degree in biostatistics and epidemiology from the same institution. She later obtained a PhD in epidemiology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Arnett’s research has primarily focused on the genetics of cardiovascular disease, which, as she mentioned in her AHA 2012 Presidential Address, she became interested in while working as a clinical research nurse at the James A. Haley Veterans Affairs Hospital in Tampa, Florida. While overseeing randomized clinical trials for hypertension at the VA, she noticed that there was considerable variation both in response to drugs that treat hypertension and in response to hypertension itself. Dr. Arnett wondered if genetic differences could help explain some of this variation. Since that time, the field of genetic epidemiology has changed dramatically, with the completion of the Human Genome Project and the advent of genome-wide association studies and exome sequencing. Findings from these genetic studies have found not only direct effects of genetic polymorphisms on hypertension, but also interactions with environmental factors. Although people with genetic risk factors are unable to change their genomes, they are able to decrease their exposure to environmental risk factors, such as sodium intake and high body mass index. Dr. Arnett stressed that “we must find the population interventions to prevent, treat and control hypertension.” Her term as president of the AHA will end on June 30, 2013, but her work in cardiovascular genetic epidemiology will continue. She said that, “as epidemiologists, the role of the environment interacting with our genome is where we need to focus. We’ve garnered so much information from the genome, but the environment is shifting, like in China, Brazil, and India, and there are more unhealthy behaviors which may interact with the genome. I see myself moving my research more into understanding the environment and how we could alter the slope of the epidemiological transition.”
The AHA Presidential Address is found here and Dr. Arnett can be contacted at Arnett@uab.edu.