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Martha Driessnack, College of Nursing

  Martha Driessnack
Martha Driessnack, assistant professor in the College of Nursing. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Martha Driessnack finds the ultimate heroine in Madam “Poppy” Pomfrey, the dynamic school nurse in the Harry Potter books. Though the UI assistant professor in the College of Nursing doesn’t use potions and wands, she and the magical matron are staunch advocates for their young patients. Driessnack seeks to understand how children think about health and illness and use that information to improve health care for them.

Driessnack studies genetic literacy in children: what kids know about genetics, biology, and other health-related topics. She also examines the kaleidoscope of TV programs and advertisements, Internet sources and networks, and books that expose them to these subjects before formal education. Delivering correct health information to children at an early age could make them savvier health care consumers in the future.

Ultimately, her research may help change health care in the genomics age, which sometimes finds the public baffled by fast-evolving scientific concepts. Driessnack sat down with fyi to talk about her progressive view of health care, research, and fascination with the Harry Potter series.

Can you retrace your path to pediatric nursing?

I was out taking a walk in a park, where I often studied as an undergraduate, and I ran into an older woman who was a nurse. We got into a conversation about health care and she explained the difference between a nurse and a physician, and that was the end of it. I wanted to work with people, to know the whole context of that person—not just the disease. 

I applied to nursing school, even though I was a molecular biophysics and biochemistry major at the time, and got in. There were no more questions about where I fit in. I went on from my undergraduate degree at Ohio State to my master’s degree at Yale University, and then a PhD from Oregon Health & Science University, then here for a postdoctoral research fellowship in clinical genetics.

It never dawned on me that I wouldn’t do pediatrics. I find children refreshingly honest and resilient.

Why are children the key to changing aspects of health care?

Naïve theories and models of biology start to form at age 7 and are complete by age 10. That’s the age group I’m most interested in. The naïve models you form at the time is the basis for everything you understand down the road. If that model’s not flexible—or incorrect—then when you grow up, no matter what I teach you, you’ll probably reject it if it doesn’t fit in that model. That’s why when adults are presented with new health-related information, even if you lay it out all clearly, they sometimes go away and it doesn’t sink in.


A few of my favorite things ...

TV show: Medium

Music: Sweet Honey in the Rock

Web site: Children and Nature Network

Exercise regimen: taking long walks

Childhood memories: walking on the beach with her father, making pie with her grandmother


What sparked your interest in genetics?

It’s the key to the future, personalized health care. When the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, Science magazine included a poster insert of the entire human genome. I got it laminated and hung it on my wall. It still hangs in my office. When people ask me about a gene, I like to go to the wall and show them.

How does genetics connect to art?

My interest is developing data-collection methods for research with children that are child friendly, child directed, and child centered. But many methods used for self-reporting were developed with adults. By using these with children, we continue to marginalize them. For example, you’re taking a directed interview, questionnaire, or survey and “dumbing it down” to their level of vocabulary. That does not make it appropriate for children. I use art. When we are asked to draw or create something using art, it relies on internal sensory cues, which privilege children’s communication abilities. So one approach asks them to explain what their drawing means. I call them “draw-and-tell” conversations. A very simple drawing, which takes maybe 10 or 15 minutes, can give us a lot of information.

In January you published an article about “nature deficit disorder.” What exactly is that?

Nature deficit disorder is a term coined by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods. It refers to the consequences of children’s decreasing contact with nature. I see this with today’s kids who rarely go outside and play. Instead, they are plugged in to their iPods, the Internet, texting, whatever. In recent years we have also seen children suffer from migraines, heart disease, even high blood pressure—mostly stress-related diseases. Yet when children go outside and play—even children with ADHD—these complaints decrease and sometimes go away.

How did you learn about the topic?

It was in Louv’s book, which I picked up in the parents’ section of a store in Harpers Ferry two or three years ago. After reading it, I joined the Children & Nature Network. I guess the whole nature movement is a cross-section of who I am as a person and my work. I’m a bit of a leftover hippie. My kids went to Montessori schools, which are nature based, and I love my memories of being outside and the lessons learned from unsupervised play. Most of all I think anything we can do to improve the health of children will have long-term impact on the health of this country.

Did you spend a lot of time in nature as a kid?

Yes. For me, my favorite nature spot was the beach. It is easy for me to connect with those memories. I would take long walks on the beach with my father. It was just magic. There was a lot of wonder.

You’re a fan of the Harry Potter books?

I’ve read every single one of the books. I love the character Madam Pomfrey. She should be the new role model when we talk to kids about nursing. One of the children I was doing research with asked me, “Do you think Madam Pomfrey does research?” I said, “Absolutely.”

Madam Pomfrey was very much a patient advocate and a powerful role model. She focuses on the whole child and has a lot of little healing tricks that go beyond traditional knowledge. I’ve written to J.K. Rowling to say thank you for creating such a character.

How does wizardry tie into genetics? 

We’ve all assumed kids know nothing about genetics. But children today have exposure to very complicated genetic concepts.

One of the examples I use is Harry Potter. I can say to children, “You understand he’s a wizard. How do you think he got to be a wizard? Do your parents have to have it?” No. It appears that wizardry follows autosomal recessive patterns of inheritance. You could have two parents that are “Muggles,” or nonwizards, which means they are both carriers of the “wizard gene.” Although they aren’t wizards themselves, they can have a wizard child. They are called “half-bloods” in the books. Those wizard children who have two wizard parents are called “pure-bloods.”

Other complex genetic terms—like variable expressivity and incomplete penetrance—can also be seen in the wizard world. You have people who may come from powerful wizard parents but have none or limited magical abilities themselves. 

So here you have these very sophisticated concepts and people say, “How can I ever explain this to a child?” I say it’s very easy. Let’s start with what the children know… Harry Potter. You can also use Spider-Man, X-Men, Digimon, Jurassic Park, and many others. Each has some genetic parallel.

by Zhi Xiong

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