Swarms of genetic counselors recently descended on Columbus, Ohio, for four days of the genetic counseling immersion that is a National Society of Genetic Counselor's Annual Education meeting. I was thrilled to go and also very fortunate to have won an NSGC travel scholarship. To be fully confessional here, I spent weeks leading up to the conference studying the preliminary program. I may have made a schedule of the talks I would go to before my plane took off.
Have you ever been driving and suddenly know you’re on a college campus? Everyone’s young, toting a backpack, and people starting crossing the street without looking? I can’t help but think that to a trained eye, the NSGC AEC might be as recognizable. You’d see tons of women. At first, you might think it’s an ad for Ann Taylor Loft. Then you’d notice they all have name badges on lanyards and they’re all carrying the same tote bag with the NSGC logo on the front! The keen eye might even pick up on the unusual number of people with DNA paraphernalia (including my double-helix earrings!).
At this year’s conference, I was pleasantly surprised to note a little more diversity in the attendees than what I just described. (Although cardigans were still there in abundance.) Genetic counseling is known for being a homogenous field desperately wanting for diversity. (I am not helping, as I am a white, cardigan- and ballet-flat-wearing woman with DNA earrings!) This year I noticed a greater showing of our XY colleagues, both in practicing counselors and students. Many speakers and talks mentioned the need for diversity in our field, not only in gender but also racial and economic diversity. We had a very enlightening session on implicit bias and the need to address our biases before we can make progress. I may be an optimist, but with the conference as evidence, it seems that we are moving in the direction of diversity. Yes, I did have a little reflective moment on the irony that in genetic counseling, we say things like: “Look, men! Diversity!”
One theme of this year’s conference was innovation. It’s so exciting to hear from counselors who are doing things differently: expanding accessibility, collaborating with other healthcare providers, challenging the model of “identify and refer” for getting patients to genetic services and getting truly integrated into so many areas of healthcare and industry.
Two of my favorite sessions also reflected innovation in the AEC itself. Friday morning offered interactive workshops. Inspired by our upcoming genetic counseling program at UConn, I attended “Teaching Genomic Medicine: A Train-the-Trainer workshop.” The workshop spoke about the flipped classroom and team-based learning, which filled in gaps in my knowledge about these educational models and let me learn side-by-side with our new program’s wonderful directors. It also filled me with daydreams about the ways we may engage our future genetic counselors-in-training. (UConn GC Program takes AEC 2020?! Can’t wait.)
A debate on the merits and drawbacks of expanded carrier screening was also a fantastic session. I had looked forward to this since first cracking the preliminary program, as I often have a debate about expanded carrier screening inside my own head. The debate format provided excellent insights offered by both presenters (who were brave to take on such a format!) and allowed a lot of audience participation.
Another theme that continued to be highlighted was our counseling skills. It is abundantly clear that the information we handle and relay is getting more complex. As genetic counselors, we are not only means to genetic testing. Our counseling skills and commitment to whole-patient care, combined with our rigorous knowledge about genetics and its testing, make us unique and irreplaceable. Finally, the takeaway of any conference is that any genetic counselor or a genetic counseling student is not alone. Whether you fit the stereotype of a GC (like me!) or you are bringing diversity to our profession (yay, you!) you are walking in a profession that is as supportive of its own as we are of the patients for whom we care.
Get an inside look at the conference through genetic counselor's tweets with #NSGC17. And check out next year's location below!