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GNSA Leadership Council

The Leadership Council consists of 10 graduate nursing student members who will serve a two year term to help shape the formation of the GNSA and provide direction on what programs, services, and resources should be developed to meet the needs of nursing students in master’s and doctoral degree programs. 


Please direct any questions to AACN Director of Student Engagement Marta Okoniewski at


GNSA Leadership Council 2019-2021

Brittany Abeln headshotBrittany Abeln
PhD/DNP Student
University of Arizona

Brittany Abeln, BSN, RN, is a dual PMHNP DNP/PhD student from the University of Arizona. For her dissertation, she is interested in examining mental health inequalities in the LGBT population, specifically transgender youth. Brittany’s clinical experience is primarily in the trauma setting, however more recently she has worked on an opioid case management program. Brittany is a proud Jonas Scholar in the 2018-2020 cohort and is also the current President of the Tucson Chapter of the Arizona Nurses Association. Brittany lives in Tucson, AZ with her fiancĂ© and their dog. She enjoys visiting Disneyland, hiking and collecting vinyl records. Her passion is working to eliminate health disparities faced by vulnerable populations.

Tamu Abreu headshotTamu Abreu
PhD Student
Texas Woman's University

Tamu Abreu, MSN, RN-BC, CPPS, is a PhD in nursing student at Texas Woman’s University. She earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Texas Health Science Center in 2012, and then completed her Master’s in Clinical Nurse Leadership at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Tamu has been a nurse for 12 years and has worked in various settings in Medical-Surgical Nursing, Telemetry, and Neuro-Oncology/Neurosurgery Ambulatory nursing. She holds certifications in both Medical Surgical Nursing (RN-BC) and as a Certified Professional in Patient Safety (CPPS) and currently works as a Clinical Patient Safety Specialist in the Texas Medical Center. She is a member of several professional nursing organizations and is actively involved as a board member of the Texas Gulf Coast Association for Healthcare Quality (TGCAHQ) coordinating education activities for its members. Tamu is passionate about many things, including research, patient safety and quality, advocacy and mentoring nurses. In her free time, she likes spending quality time with her family, reading, hiking, and volunteering with different organizations.

Marissa Bartmess
BS to PhD Student
University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Marissa Bartmess, BSN, RN, is a PhD student at the University of Tennessee- Knoxville and is also pursuing a graduate certificate in Health Policy. Marissa has worked as a medical-surgical nurse since 2017 with a passion for bedside nursing care. With interests in nursing workforce related research, Marissa aims to study nurses’ experiences within state-mandated, hospital-based staffing committees. Marissa is a Tennessee Fellow for Graduate Excellence with the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. She is passionate about the health, preparedness, and engagement of nursing workforces so that nurses can effectively meet the needs of patient populations. In her free time, she enjoys traveling, scuba diving, cooking, dancing, and spending time with loved ones. Marissa resides in West Columbia, SC with her husband and dog. 

Maria Burfiend
BS to DNP Student
Rush University

Maria Burfiend is a DNP student at Rush University in Chicago specializing in geriatrics. She plans to pursue a scholarly project in using technology to improve access to quality care. Maria has a BSN from Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana and has worked as a nurse for five years, primarily in inpatient critical care earning CCRN certification, but also in pediatrics, orthopedics, telemetry, and a rheumatology infusion clinic. She volunteered at neighborhood health clinics and is passionate about health prevention and promoting access to care. She is a member of the Rheumatology Nurses Association, Sigma Theta Tau, and the Healthcare Information Management Systems Society (HIMSS). Her passions include health policy and expanding the scope of practice for advanced practice nurses in rural and urban areas. Outside of healthcare, she enjoys traveling, cooking, and outdoor activities.

Sherry Chen
DNP Student
Johns Hopkins University

Sherry Chen, BSN, RN is currently a second-year Doctor of Nursing Practice student in the Adult-Gerontological Primary Care Nurse Practitioner program at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing (JHSON). She received her Bachelor of Arts in Biology and Sociology from Drew University, an Associate in Applied Science in Nursing from Borough of Manhattan Community College, and her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Lehman College. Sherry is passionate about improving access to quality, affordable, and culturally competent health care and mental health care especially for vulnerable populations. She has over 10 years of experience in various positions in public health and non-profit health care and currently works as a community health nurse at the JHSON Wald Community Nursing Center. On campus, she has worked with other students to create the JHSON Mental Health Grad Network to support and promote the mental health of School of Nursing students as well as to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health conditions.

Cassandra Dziobek
Post-Doctoral Fellow
Dartmouth College

Cassandra Dziobek, MSN, APRN, is a post-doctoral fellow at Dartmouth College with a focus on sleep's impact on mental and physical health in patient populations. Cassie attended the University of Vermont as an undergraduate, where she received a BS in Neuroscience and Psychology. She received her BS and MS in Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing at Regis College in Massachusetts, and her PhD at University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

Rachel Kashy
MSN Student
Loyola University New Orleans

Rachel Kashy, BSN, RN, BS, is a Family Nurse Practitioner student at Loyola University New Orleans. She earned her bachelor's degrees in both psychology and nursing from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. Rachel has worked as an emergency nurse for the past 5 years and continues to practice clinically during her graduate education. She is a passionate advocate for graduate nursing students enrolled in distance learning programs and serves as the MSN/FNP Student Representative at Loyola University New Orleans. Rachel also created and gave a "Tips for Success" presentation for all new Loyola University New Orleans graduate nursing students and plans to continue this tradition with future cohorts. She resides in New Orleans, Louisiana with her fiancé and two dogs.

Maria McDonald
PhD Student
University of Virginia

Maria McDonald, MSN, FNP-C, is a first year PhD in nursing student at the University of Virginia. She earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing from James Madison University in 2015 and has experience in the operating room and the pediatric intensive care unit. In 2019, she completed her master’s degree in nursing at James Madison University and was certified by the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners as a Family Nurse Practitioner. She is a member of Sigma Theta Tau International and the International Society of Nurses in Genetics (ISONG). Her research interests include mental health and genetics with a focus on Major Depression and it’s implications in pregnancy. In her spare time, she enjoys outdoor activities and spending quality time with her family and friends.

Shazia Mitha
PhD Student
Columbia University

Shazia Mitha, MSN, AG-ACNP-BC, RN, Chair, is a Robert Wood Johnson Future of Nursing Scholar, who is currently pursuing her PhD to develop phenotypic risk identification and predictions models of high-risk breast cancer patients experiencing treatment-related cardiotoxicity, using natural language processing and other informatics approaches at Columbia University. She is an exceptional student, leader, clinician and scholar interested in developing leadership opportunities for current graduate students through the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) Graduate Nursing Student Academy (GNSA) Leadership Program. She believes that nurses are born leaders and every nurse should strive to participate and engage in community, local, state, regional, and national decision-making platforms to improve patient outcomes at all levels.

She has served in many leadership positions, including engaging graduate students, as a GNSA Liaison and also serving her school and regional community as the chair of the Interschool Governing Board at Columbia University, overseeing over 80 student groups, serving as the Leadership Chair for the Sigma Theta Tau Honor Society of Nursing, Alpha Zeta Chapter, and contributing as a co-founder in developing the inaugural Student Council at Columbia Nursing, increasing student leadership and promoting student interests on campus. At the regional level, she serves as the nursing member on the Health Information Technology Advisory Committee at Academy Health and contributes her scholarly talents in cardiology as a reviewer for the Journal of American College of Cardiology. She is a cardio-oncology nurse, who has significant experience in the cardiology and oncology patient populations and has worked at NYU, Columbia, Maimonides, and Northwell as a nurse in medical oncology, radiation oncology, and phase 1 clinical trials and has worked as an acute care nurse practitioner with solid and liquid organ transplant patients in cardiology and bone marrow transplant. With her vast clinical and leadership experience, she hopes to contribute to the GNSA Leadership Council in engaging graduate students at the national level by promoting the mission and vision of AACN GNSA and enhancing student experience at all levels.

Brandon Varilek
PhD Student
South Dakota State University

Brandon Varilek, RN, BAN, PCCN, CCTC, is a PhD in nursing student at South Dakota State University. He is currently in the fourth year of the 5-year BSN to PhD program. His master’s focus is nursing education. He also works full time as a Transplant Coordinator at Avera Transplant Institute in Sioux Falls, SD. In his free time, he enjoys camping, hiking, and spending time with his wife and newborn baby.