Office of Research & Development
Office of Research & Development
Birmingham, Alabama VA Medical Center
March 7, 2018
VA researcher Dr. Gina McCaskill, based in Birmingham, Alabama, is an avid endurance cyclist in her free time. She wears a mask to avoid respiratory symptoms.
Dr. Gina McCaskill, an Army Veteran, is a junior investigator in the Geriatric, Research, Education, and Clinical Center (GRECC) at the Birmingham, Alabama VA Medical Center. She focuses on improving the quality of life and well-being in older Veterans with chronic health conditions. She’s also interested in reducing health disparities among older Veterans. In her doctoral dissertation at the University of Alabama, she developed an instrument for assessing self-care among older African-Americans with type 2 diabetes. She served for more than four years in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, which supplies information systems and worldwide networks for the Army, the Department of Defense, and allied nations in coalition operations.
What drove you to military service?
Initially, I wasn’t interested in military service. After enrolling in college, my mother became terminally ill. So I returned home to care for her. My mother planted the seed. My father, who was from a military family, was also on board. My parents sold the idea to me as an opportunity to see the world and serve our country! I was the first woman in my family to join the military.
What inspired your research career?
My research career has been inspired by intelligent and incredible people engaged in research to improve the lives of older adults. As a graduate student at the University of Alabama, I had the opportunity to serve as a research interviewer for the study of aging at the University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB). Dr. Richard Allman was the principal investigator at UAB. His work inspired me and gave me ideas for my future dissertation research. I have also been inspired by the researchers at the Birmingham VA GRECC, such as Dr. Patricia Goode, Dr. Kathryn Burgio, and especially Dr. Cynthia Brown. They care a great deal about improving the lives of Veterans!
Did you have mentors who inspired you in life, the military, or your research career?
Yes. I had mentors who inspired me during my military service, especially Sgt. Edna Sloan. I have also been fortunate to have had mentors throughout my academic and research career, too many to mention. My mentors have served in different roles. They are all on speed-dial on my cell phone.
When and where did you serve in the military? Describe your military experience.
In a little more than four years in the Army, I served in South Korea and then-West Germany. I also had a couple of posts in the U.S. When I was honorably discharged from the Army, I had no idea that my military service would be life-changing. I have friends from the Army with whom I remain in contact. When I earned my doctorate in social work at the University of Alabama in 2013, my friend Sgt. First Class David Nelson was right there with me 20 years after we served in the military together!
What kinds of research are you involved in? How does it potentially impact Veterans?
My research relates to older Veterans. I’m especially interested in improving the quality of life and well-being of older Veterans who have multiple chronic conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes, and osteoarthritis. For instance, I set Veterans up in their home with a chair exercise program that they can do at any time of the day. I provide hand weights, resistance bands, an exercise ball, a DVD player, and a DVD program.
In this photo taken in Brooklyn, New York, in 1983, Dr. Gina McCaskill is seen with her father, Charles W. McCaskill, who passed away in 2011.
Did your military experience inspire you to pursue a career as a VA researcher? Is your military experience connected in some way to your VA research?
Initially, my military experience did not inspire my career as a VA researcher. However, once I began to connect with Veterans through my professional life, I became inspired by their stories and concerned about their welfare. I began to think about ways that I could improve their lives.
How do you feel about the possibility of making life better for Veterans through your research?
I am incredibly grateful for each and every Veteran that decides to participate in my research. The possibility to improve the lives of older Veterans is my priority and my passion. At the end of each day, I go home and sleep well knowing that my research will make a difference in the lives of older Veterans.
Does being a Veteran give you a greater emotional tie to the work you’re doing or more insight into Veterans’ needs?
Being a Veteran and conducting research with Veterans is a very challenging dynamic. I do not want to influence Veterans to participate in my research just because I am a Veteran. At the same time, however, being a former service member may give me some credibility.
Based on your life experiences to date, what do you believe are the keys to success? What motivational tips would you share?
The keys to success are passion, dedication, and focus. Equally important are the willingness to be flexible and to try new approaches to old questions. Lastly, it helps to have mentors who are passionate, dedicated, and supportive.
What’s the next step for you in your VA career?
I’m not sure what the next steps are for me in my VA career. Currently, I’m a worker without compensation. However, I am exploring possibilities. We shall see.