Public Health Research with Donna Arnett - Podcast Transcript


Alicia: Welcome to the research podcast. I’m Alicia Gregory, Director of Research Communications at the University of Kentucky. Donna Arnett is the Dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Kentucky. A prolific researcher, with a 20-year track record of NIH funding, Arnett came to UK in 2015. She is a past president of the American Heart Association and she studies how genes influence disease risk and predict our response to treatment.  When asked why she became a researcher, Donna says she asked her family.


Donna Arnett:  You know, I've asked my family members this question, I said, "Why- why do you think I'm a researcher?" And, their answer was, you always asked questions about everything. So, I think I've been asking questions my whole life, and I just discovered epidemiology later in my nursing career. And, it just really excited me about the potential to answer really important questions. 


Alicia: Do you remember your very first research project? Tell me a little bit about it. 


Donna Arnett: I actually do. So, I got into research when I left Clinical Nursing and went into research. And, so it was my first time of actually implementing studies, and the excitement about doing studies was just so overwhelming that I decided to design my own little project. So, I did this. I studied why some people develop enlargement of their heart with hypertension, while others don't. Even at the same level of blood pressure. It really was the foundation of ultimately going into genetics. So, I studied 12 men across a period of a day, all day long, measuring their blood pressure every hour, and looking at their variability in blood pressure. And, wrote my first abstract and presented it at a national meeting. And, it was just life changing. 


Alicia: Tell me a little about the area of research you focused on, and why did you pick that area? 


Donna Arnett:  I am a genetic epidemiologist. Which means that I study the causes of diseases in populations that have a genetic source. And, for years, I've been doing what we now know as precision medicine, really understanding the way genes predict our response to treatment, and our response to the environment, in terms of predicting disease, or predicting responsiveness to a therapy. 


So, I really got interested in this whole variability of response to treatment, variability of the response of the body to blood pressure, or other environmental stimuli, back in those clinical research practice days. And, why I focused on genetics, I'll never forget. In my hallway, in this VA hospital, every day, the men would be coming down the hallway, they're almost all African-American, heading to the dialysis. And, I saw them, you know, three times a week, because they came for dialysis every other day. I said, “You know, there has to be something about being African-American, and having kidney failure”. I mean, it... there has to be something. My hypotheses have evolved quite a bit from then, but that was the genesis of why I went into genetic epidemiology. 


Alicia: What have been some of the most fulfilling moments for you, in regards to your research? 


Donna Arnett: Well there are many. I think, probably the most fulfilling, and they're hard to measure by publications, because we all have those, they're really seeing, it gives me goose bumps, seeing your mentees really do something spectacular, to be on a national or international stage presenting work from the projects that you created. And that they're getting to report. I mean, we've had some really fun scientific findings, like my favorite things about hypertrophy, you know, why is it some hearts hypertrophy in the context of hypertension, and we were one of the first groups to report that this... these neuro-adhesion molecules were significantly associated with that in hypertensives. But those... those findings, while important, to me as a mentor, it's seeing my mentees up on stage. 


Alicia: How has your research impacted the way you train students? 


Donna Arnett: Science is now really multidisciplinary. So, we have to function in a team, and I think it's really important to bring people up and to work in multidisciplinary teams. So, the way that my teams function, you know. I've been working with basic scientists since the day I started in genetics, you know, and working with my lab experts and my statistical experts. So, bringing the team together and building that team, has really impacted how I train my fellows. Because, they also need to be engaged in team science. 


Alicia: So what motivated you to move from a very research focused role, to become dean? 


Donna Arnett: Well, that's a great question. And, I have not actually left my research role. I still have three RO1s, those are NIH funded grants that I brought here to UK. I'm still working on them. I have the team, so you know, I'm able, right now, to do both. I don't know that I can ever leave it 100 percent behind me, because it's... it's such a passion of mine to answer these questions. But, I was ready for that next step, and in terms of administration, having a bigger vision that goes beyond the research. 


Alicia: You served as President of the American Heart Association. What impact did that opportunity have on you? 


Donna Arnett: Being president of the AHA, American Heart Association, was transformational for me. It broadened my perspectives of how to look at health and disease in populations. And, knowing that you can't answer really complex problems with one simple solution. That it really takes multi-sectorial partnerships to be able to accomplish things in populations. You know, as scientists, we've known we needed multidisciplinary teams to answer questions. What I learned in the American Heart Association is that, it really takes partnerships coming together to solve the really tough challenges of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer in our populations. If we're going to address it, it's going to take us working together with multiple people and groups. 


Alicia: Related to that is, in Kentucky and particularly at UK, we talk a lot about health disparities. We have a lot of those in our state. What kind of impact can public health research have on those issues? 


Donna Arnett: You know, public health is at the heart of answering the challenges of those critical diseases in Kentucky. You know, I was born in London, Kentucky, my whole family lives in Eastern Kentucky. And so, I see first-hand the impact of, the devastating impact, of obesity, of diabetes, of cancer, and even unintentional injuries. Second leading cause of death in... in Kentucky. And, much of it is from drug abuse and drug overdoses that are unintentional. So, we at Public Health are really at the forefront of... of first detecting these epidemics, and then finding strategies and interventions to help eliminate those disparities.


Alicia: What are some of your top goals as Dean of the College of Public Health?


Donna Arnett: Well, my very first goal is to let UK know what public health is. We just started an undergraduate program two years ago. We've grown well beyond what we ever envisioned that we could do. And just letting people know what the field is, how it adds value to the UK community, how it adds value to the state of Kentucky. So, that's my first goal.


My second goal is really partnering with the infrastructure of public health in the state, which is really a very strong infrastructure. And, working with our health system to build the bridge between public health and medicine. Really, it's health as a continuum. And, thinking how we can untie those two together, to really impact health and populations. That's really my second largest goal. 


You know, I have other goals about improving our research productivity. Believe it or not, we're a really research intensive group, with over 60 percent of our funding for our salaries of our faculty being supported by research. So, we're probably, if not the best research machine on campus per faculty member. But, I want to further strengthen that in terms of National Institutes of Health rankings. And, that's the third objective. 


And, the fourth is really to keep our great programs going on from the educational perspective. We have a true aspect in that our students love our faculty. They get a lot of attention from our faculty, and that special bond, I want to maintain. 


Alicia: What would you tell someone who's thinking about joining the research enterprise at UK? 


Donna Arnett: The reason I joined, is that the need is great. So, there are such special and interesting disparities in Kentucky that are different than any other part of the country. And they're complex, and challenging in ways that... that are not apparent in other areas of the country. So, I think it's a rich environment for asking really deep and challenging questions. So, those are the kinds of questions I like to ask, and... and that's the reason I would encourage other researchers to come and make UK their home. 


Alicia: So, you mentioned, that's part of the reason you chose to come here. Were there any other reasons you chose UK? 


Donna Arnett: Well, you know, I'm a Kentucky Colonel, my family is from Kentucky. So, it was just natural for me to come back home, and it felt like coming back home to come here. When I got my letter, I remember it saying "Welcome to the UK Family", and there really is this sense here, of community. There's a sense of collegiality that I haven't witnessed at other institutions. So, those are some other reasons. 


Alicia: So, one final question. What do you do outside of the office that you enjoy the most? 


Donna Arnett: Well, I only have one hobby. It is a fairly consuming hobby, but that's training dogs. So, I have three border collies that compete, or are in training to compete in agility. And, we do about one trial a month where we go out and run these courses, and do our best. I have been doing it about six years. And, my dog finally completed his master agility championship last fall. So, we made our milestone. 


Alicia: Thanks, Donna and thank you for listening to the research podcast. To subscribe to our podcasts on Soundcloud or iTunes, search “University of Kentucky Research Media.” And visit our site;