Every Cause Needs a Champion: Jean Chabut as a Public Health Genomics PioneerPosted on by
Cham·pi·on noun \ˈcham-pē-ən\: someone who fights or speaks publicly in support of a person, belief, cause, etc.
Most public health programs can point to a key person or group who was instrumental in assuring not only the program’s successful introduction but also its long-term viability. Jean Chabut was that champion for public health genomics in Michigan. First as the state chronic disease director, and later as deputy director for public health at the Michigan Department of Community Health, she took a keen interest in the role of genomics in public health, then a bold new concept. Jean was ahead of her time in many ways. When Michigan was starting its public health genomics odyssey in the late 1990’s, a formal framework to evaluate the evidence of genomic applications did not exist. However, as a nurse and forward-thinking public health administrator, Jean believed that family history and genetics would one day be very important for improving population health. From 2003-2008, she took on the role of project co-director for Michigan’s genomics cooperative agreement and worked with 3 other states to provide early insight into the integration of genomics into public health. She insisted that staff positions funded by the grant be established as permanent civil service jobs rather than as temporary contractual positions, a move that would signal greater integration and sustainability within the health department. She also established an internal Genomics Work Group to provide a forum for regular discussion of family history and other genomics developments, encouraging involvement from all chronic disease programs. Jean also enthusiastically supported a “Six Weeks to Genomics Awareness” lunch and learn series open to all MDCH staff. Always willing to listen and lend her influence to whatever needed to be accomplished, Jean was eager to learn how genetics could be fully integrated into public health programs, providing support to her Genomics Team from the top down.
Years before her own breast cancer diagnosis, Jean had taken a special interest in cancer risk assessment and testing, recognizing the importance of genetic counseling for high risk families. She fostered cancer genomics awareness and education by encouraging staff to find engaging presenters who could speak to the importance of genetics in cancer control at annual meetings of the Michigan Cancer Consortium, an “organization of organizations” that she founded to bring together all of the state’s key stakeholders in addressing cancer prevention and control. But cancer was not Jean’s only interest. Early on, she appreciated the genetic contribution to sudden cardiac death in young people and supported Michigan Genomics Program staff members as they sought innovative strategies to identify the problem through surveillance and develop strategies for prevention. Jean was a big thinker, and to her nothing seemed out of reach.
At the national level, Jean enthusiastically took on leadership roles, using her position as president of the Chronic Disease Directors to promote interest in public health genomics among her colleagues. She spearheaded a genomics retreat for Chronic Disease Program Directors in 2000, and in 2002, she was a driving force behind the Genomics and Chronic Disease Summit [PDF 165.12 KB] to identify recommendations for state and federal agencies that would help to integrate genomics into broad chronic disease prevention and management strategies. Ten years later, in 2012, she enthusiastically participated in CDC’s Office of Public Health Genomics New Strategies in Public Health Genomics: Actions to Save Lives Now [PDF 951.80 KB] meeting and subsequently promoted new approaches to familial hypercholesterolemia.
As a result of Jean’s inspirational leadership, Michigan is one of the leading states for public health genomics today. While much has changed over the past decade in our thinking about the role of genomics applications in public health, the need for champions remains. When Jean passed away last summer, we lost not only a good friend, but Michigan –and indeed the nation —lost a public health genomics pioneer and champion whose dynamic influence will continue for many years to come.