Trailblazing Genetic Counselors: Episode 11

This is the eleventh installment in our series, “Trailblazing Genetic Counselors”, in which we highlight genetic counselors who are pioneers in the field. Genetic counselors are health professionals with specialized graduate degrees and experience in the areas of medical genetics and counseling. Genetic counseling is a rapidly growing field offering professionals a wide range of opportunities, which we explore in this series. Learn more on the National Society of Genetic Counselors’ (NSGC) new website, aboutgeneticcounselors.com.

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In this episode, we interviewed international genetic counseling students and recent graduates about their application process and experience in American genetic counseling programs. Check out their advice below!


Yingyue (Annie) Li Johns Hopkins University and National Human Genome Research Institute Genetic Counseling Training Program

Yingyue (Annie) Li

Johns Hopkins University and National Human Genome Research Institute Genetic Counseling Training Program

What inspired you to join the field of genetic counseling?

Prior to joining the field of genetic counseling, I worked as a research assistant in a clinical molecular diagnostic lab in the University of Iowa. The lab conducted cutting-edge disease-related research as well as provided direct sequencing service to the patients. There I was convinced that the translation of genetic/genomic knowledge and technologies were currently being quickly translated to bench side and that genetic counselors will act as the bridge of connection. Also, I found being a genetic counselor fits my personality well, and will continue to grow as a promising healthcare profession in the era of precision medicine.

Moreover, I learned that the genetic counseling service is not yet well developed or broadly acknowledged as a healthcare profession in China. I hope I can contribute to the professional growth in China someday.

What challenges did you face during the application process?

Beyond the challenges shared by most of the applicant's (time management, competitive nature of the application itself, GPA and GRE score), I, as an international student who received an undergraduate degree in a foreign university, needed to demonstrate excellent English proficiency to the admission committee via TOEFL test and my interview.

What’s more, it was challenging to volunteer in the Crisis Center as a foreigner. It was emotionally intense and extremely energy-draining since I also need to work full-time, to prepare for the GRE and TOEFL, to shadow local genetic counselors, and to complete a GC internship in a hospital.

I am grateful that I did not give up and appreciate everyone who encouraged and supported me to follow my heart.

How is your education experience different in America compared to China?

I received a traditional Chinese-style education both at home and at school. I received college training in China and then moved to the U.S. for graduate school. The philosophy of education in China was quite different than U.S.

While I was in China, I was taught to strive for excellence in terms of test scores and ranking in class. However, in my personal experience, thinking independently and being yourself was not encouraged much. The conflict has existed for a long time between the need to be accepted and acknowledged and the eagerness to follow my own heart. To some extent, I was shaped to be a submissive follower of authority, though I was equipped well with knowledge and skills.

The graduate training in U.S. is vastly different. Like for most graduate students, the workload is often intense and self-motivation is very important.

Did you start your research project? What are you exploring?

Yes, I did already started my thesis project. I was originally interested in translating, validating, and applying a genetic literacy measurement from the English language to Chinese. However, after quite a hassle, the topic has changed for several reasons. Now the aim is to gain a comprehensive understanding of the clients about their motivation, comprehension, and psychosocial as well as behavioral responses toward Expanded Carrier Screening.   

Do you have advice for prospective international students in their applications processes?

I hope those who are interested in genetic counseling will keep their confidence high throughout the application process. I hope they hold their beliefs in their decision to be a genetic counselor and stay committed to it. I also hope they recognize their unique experiences and perspectives gained from having lived in another country are irreplaceable assets and also can be highly valued by the GC program.

The status of being an international applicant does not define you or restrict you from being a qualified or excellent candidate in any way.

Last but not least, it is possible that different GC programs may have diverse policies toward international applicants, some of which are likely not listed on the website. I recommend that international students contact the program directly to ask for the specific criteria for accepting international applicants.

When is your expected graduation?

Though it is not guaranteed, I hope I can graduate in January of 2018. If not, due to the challenges to complete my thesis project, my expected graduation will be anticipated for May of 2018.

Is there a specific subfield of genetic counseling you are hoping to start or specialize in?

I do not have a strong preference toward any specialties yet. I think starting as a prenatal or cancer genetic counselor would be great for several reasons; it would be ideal if there is research element in my first GC job. In the long run, I hope I could explore the industry side to expand my roles and contribute what I learned in school and in clinics to next-generation GC education in China.


Dina Alaeddin, MGC @DinaAlaeddin The University of Maryland School of Medicine's Master's in Genetic Counseling Training Program, Class of 2017

Dina Alaeddin, MGC

@DinaAlaeddin

The University of Maryland School of Medicine's Master's in Genetic Counseling Training Program, Class of 2017

What inspired you to join the field of genetic counseling?

My interest in genetics, in general, started off from a personal experience of being diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia at the age of 16. After several courses of treatment, I underwent a bone marrow transplant from an unrelated donor. The complexity of that process lead me to pursue a BSc degree in genetics. As an individual,  I like human and personal interactions, so a career in a laboratory was not what I saw myself doing.  Genetic counseling met my needs in the middle: it included the clinical aspect of seeing patients, the psychosocial involvement along with empowering individuals through education to make decisions that are best fit for them. My main inspiration in joining the field of genetic counseling is that knowing that taking this step forward, to become a genetic counselor, will help close an education gap, empower patients and facilitate the growth of this field nationally and internationally.

What challenges did you face during the application process?

Translating international courses to applicable courses in the US and making sure all required courses are completed.

Getting a hold of the right university personnel for specific questions, especially with the time difference. Getting all required documents sent to different universities.

How is your education experience different in America?

I did my undergraduate degree in the UK. The biggest difference was a number of assignments, presentations, and exams throughout the year. In the UK it is more lecture-based and so assignments and exams are occasional vs the US where daily/weekly assignments and exams are required. It took me awhile to get used to the amount of work required, especially given that it was a Master’s degree.

Did you start your research project? What are you exploring?

Yes, my research project is complete. The title of my project is "Parkinson’s Disease: Patients’ interest in genetic counseling and their knowledge and attitudes about genetics and genetic testing."

I was able to collaborate with the University of Maryland Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center to survey patients diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. My main aim of studying the population of patients with PD is the minimal role of the genetic counselor in this clinic; so my hope was in identifying the interest and knowledge patients have, would help support a niche of genetic counselors in PD clinics.

Do you have advice for prospective international students in their applications processes?

I would recommend that they start working on their applications early and submit them early. Follow up on some document will almost always happen; submitting early will give you enough time to provide all required documentation in a timely manner.

All genetic counseling universities require some sort of exposure. This could be in the form of clinical exposure (shadowing a genetic counselor, working as a genetic counseling assistant or in a genetic laboratory), volunteering (support groups, suicide hot-lines, etc.) Genetic counselors, in general, are almost always willing to help, reach out to them for advice and questions. Be transparent.

What subfield of genetic counseling are you specializing in? Where are you working?

I am currently working as a cancer genetic counselor at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Virginia. I am part of the Inova Translational Medicine Institute. Cancer was what I wanted to do all along. You will definitely explore the multiple specialties during your clinical rotations and that experience will help you decide what specialty you want to be in.


Jamina Oomen-Hajagos, PhD, MS, LCGC @Igastrulated LIU Post's Master's of Science Genetic Counseling Class of 2017

Jamina Oomen-Hajagos, PhD, MS, LCGC

@Igastrulated

LIU Post's Master's of Science Genetic Counseling Class of 2017

What inspired you to join the field of genetic counseling?

As a doctoral student in Genetics, I spent most of my time at the lab bench doing experiments. I found the science fascinating but did not enjoy the isolation and competitiveness of lab work. I had been teaching at a local community college and really enjoyed the interactions with my students. I thought that genetic counseling would be a great way to combine my interests in science and teaching, which has turned out to be the case!

What challenges did you face during the application process?

I found it difficult to get involved in shadowing, both because I was finishing up my doctoral dissertation and because many clinics expected students to be affiliated with a hospital already. I was definitely motivated to find shadowing opportunities because I wanted to make sure that genetic counseling would be a good fit for me, so I kept calling counselors who were open to student contact. I eventually found several genetic counselors who were willing to provide me with shadowing opportunities, and they did a great job introducing me to the field and providing feedback and encouragement. As I did not grow up in the US and went to college as an international student, the Financial Aid process was completely unfamiliar to me, so that was another challenge.

How was your education experience different in America?

I grew up mostly in various Asian and African countries. I was homeschooled in Dutch by my mother through sixth grade since we moved so much it would have been difficult for me to attend school at that time. I then did a homeschooling program in English for two years, and then was able to attend an American International School in Surabaya, Indonesia, and then in Mallorca, Spain. I think the education I received there was similar to what it is here, except that I had exposure to students from a wide variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and that my class sizes were really small (less than 10 people!). I lived in the US for a few years total during my childhood and decided to come here for college, and I attended Yale University after graduating high school, where I completed a biology degree.

What did you explore in your research project?

A classmate and I did a joint research project examining clinical genetic counselors’ level of knowledge regarding psychiatric disorders and looking at whether they address mental illness in their sessions with patients. As psychiatric conditions still come with high levels of stigma and are challenging to counsel about due to their multifactorial inheritance, they are often not addressed or are misunderstood. Our project also evaluated genetic counseling students’ knowledge base about psychiatric conditions. Overall, both practicing GCs and GC students were found to have difficulty with basic questions regarding mental illness, suggesting that current training programs are not providing sufficient instruction in this area. We surveyed students to see how they thought their education could be improved to make them more comfortable counseling patients about these conditions, and their responses suggested that a variety of additional training opportunities may be needed.

Do you have advice for prospective international students in their applications processes?

I would say that, before deciding on a program, it is a good idea to look into the practicalities of completing the program, such as the costs of the program itself, housing and other living expenses, whether a car is required, etc. Ask lots of questions to determine if a program is a good fit. Find out if there are other international students you can speak to so you can get their perspective. If you plan on staying in the US, I would recommend investigating whether employers are willing to sponsor international students for positions in the region where you want to work. I was no longer on a student visa when I was in my program, but I know international students who found sponsorship to be a challenge.

What subfield of genetic counseling are you specializing in? Where are you working?

I am currently working as a genetic counselor in the Hereditary Cancer Assessment Program at the University of New Mexico Cancer Center. I decided to specialize in cancer counseling relatively early on during my training program, and am really enjoying my work with the diverse and multicultural patient population that we have here.


As you complete your applications, check out our other blog posts with applications and graduate school advice from program directors part I and part II and 14 other genetic counselors.

Check out all other episodes of our Trailblazing Genetic Counselors series here.

Want to recommend a genetic counselor that deserves the title of Trailblazing Genetic Counselor? Tweet us at @mygenecounsel or email at ellen@mygenecounsel.com!