Theresa Swift-Scalan explores individualized patient care
When women are diagnosed with breast cancer, their treatment is usually based on characteristics of the general population of women fighting this disease.
“They’re making life-changing decisions based on probabilities, and those probabilities are based on population predictors,” said Theresa Swift-Scanlan, Ph.D., RN, associate professor at the School of Nursing. Swift-Scanlan intends to change that.
“I want to explore how those decisions could be based on their individual risk factors; the context of their environment,” she said.
Recently named director of the school’s Biobehavioral Research Laboratory, Swift-Scanlan conducts research on the epigenetics of chronic illness; specifically, the study of variables that mediate or moderate interactions between environmental influences, biology and behavior.
“My goal is to improve risk assessment and help guide treatment for a range of complex illnesses, including cancer and neurologically-related disorders,” she said.
Swift-Scanlan’s research expertise aligns with where the future of health care is headed — individualized health. Also known as precision health, individualized health involves tailoring a patient’s prevention or treatment based on his or her specific genetics, environment and lifestyle instead of the general standard of care.
Swift-Scanlan’s interest in individualized health was budding even before she knew she wanted to be a nurse. The Northside Richmond native started out as a biology major, going on to earn a B.S. from Old Dominion University. She served in various positions on her path to becoming a nurse, including an administrator in the Peace Corps Dominican Republic and a first aid instructor for the Dominican Red Cross.
Following her Peace Corps work, Swift-Scanlan earned a master’s degree in marine molecular biology from the University of Maryland and then served as a senior research technician at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She recalled volunteering at a local hospice, where one of the nurses motivated her to pursue a life-changing career path.
“She used to tease me and suggested that I should try genetics with nursing,” Swift-Scanlan recalled with a smile.
Thinking of how her Peace Corps experience fits with community health and her hospice experience fits with oncology and chronic illness, Swift-Scanlan decided to pursue nursing. She earned an accelerated B.S. in nursing from Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing while working as a faculty research associate on a psychiatric genetics project at the School of Medicine. Through this work she was inspired to pursue a Ph.D. in nursing/cancer genetics, focusing on combining genetics and epigenetics to explore early detection and improved risk assessment for people with cancer.
For her next career move, Swift-Scanlan joined the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as an assistant professor. It was there that the many accomplishments coming out of the VCU School of Nursing caught her attention.
“I was familiar with the P20 and P30 center grants, and I read a lot about the researchers’ work,” she said. “This made me smile because I was looking for multi-disciplinary research opportunities.”
Other highlights that stood out to her were the collegial environment and the communication from the school.
“I saw the tagline (Creating collaboration. Advancing science. Impacting lives.) in the correspondence, and it resonated with me,” she said. “I could really see this was a positive environment of hard-working collaborators.”
Swift-Scanlan also made an outstanding impression on the School of Nursing, said Jean Giddens, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, dean and the Doris B. Yingling Endowed Chair.
‘We’re thrilled to have a senior researcher of Theresa’s caliber to contribute to the innovative research underway at our school,” Giddens said. “Her background and interest in precision health care support our goal of being on the forefront of discoveries designed to improve health care.”
Swift-Scanlan’s senior-level research expertise is one of the reasons she was appointed as the Ellen Fontaine Winston Distinguished Professor at the School of Nursing. She will be formally invested in this esteemed appointment at a ceremony in the fall.
“Two words come to mind when I think about this professorship — gratitude and opportunity,” Swift-Scanlan said.
Swift-Scanlan has already demonstrated her ability to successfully leverage opportunities. Prior to joining VCU, she earned a patent for her invention, “A Novel Method for Quantitatively Analyzing Methylation in Biological Samples.” Licensed by Cepheid, Inc., the approach allows researchers to measure epigenetic markers even with a small amount of tissue.
Swift-Scanlan has also served as the principal investigator for several National Institutes of Health-funded studies, published numerous articles, and presented at various national and international conferences. In addition, she serves on several journal editorial boards and is a member of the International Society of Nurses in Genetics Research Committee.
Although she’s a senior researcher with many accolades, Swift-Scanlan is most proud of being a mom to her 15-year-old daughter, Sasha. She treasures the time she gets to spend with her family and friends, especially now that she has returned to her hometown.
“I enjoy making a really nice meal and inviting people over to dinner,” she said. “It feels good to be back home in the Richmond area.”