This is the tenth 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 highlight Part II: Program Directors of new genetic counseling graduate programs. Additional training programs are greatly needed to meet the ever-increasing demand for genetic counselors. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the projected growth of the field between 2014 and 2024 is 29%. That’s a huge increase compared to the 7% average growth rate for occupations overall.
The genetic counselors in Columbus are all passionate about promoting the genetic counseling profession and ensuring that genetic counselors are integral in all healthcare settings. As part of this mission, the Genetic Counseling Graduate Program at Ohio State University was developed to help meet the growing demand for qualified master-degree genetic counselors.
Photo Credit: Ohio State University
Ohio State University aims to train genetic counselors who will promote the genetic counseling profession in a scholarly manner. Program Director Dawn C. Allain, MS, LGC explains how they strive to achieve this goal, “we focus on preparing our students to share their genetic counseling expertise through teaching, clinical care, and research. We measure the success of this aim by monitoring our graduates journal publications, grants, teaching experiences, regional/national presentations, and clinical successes (such as patient advocacy work, new service delivery models or the development of new clinics).”
The program also has a strong focus of encouraging and teaching students to develop and hone their leadership skills for not only their future employment positions, but within the profession. Allain shares why Ohio State University is an exceptional place to accomplish this, “Columbus is home to a great group of genetic counselors who hold positions within several of our genetic professional organizations. Thus, our clinical supervisors and course directors model professional leadership on a day-to-day basis for our students. We encourage our students to volunteer early, and often, for leadership development opportunities and identify mentors who will help them achieve their own professional development successes.”
Students in the program work in prenatal, cardiology, neurology, pediatrics, cancer, laboratory and medical genetic clinics. Clinical sites in the Columbus area include Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, OhioHealth, Mt. Carmel Health Systems, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Dayton Children’s Hospital, and Miami Valley Hospital. Over the summer students have options for clinical sites around the country in locations such as Washington, California, Missouri, Vermont, Michigan and Hawaii.
A unique feature of the program is how early clinical placements begin, “Our students start clinical placements on day one of the first semester.” Allain comments, “Seriously, for the last two years the first day of the semester is a clinical placement day so our students go directly to their clinical placement before they are even in a class.”
Allain outlines two basic and easy things students should do during the application process, “First, you need to remember that you are applying to professional degree programs. As such, you must exhibit and maintain a high level of professionalism during your interactions with graduate programs; from the very first email to the very last thank you. Second, answer the questions asked of you on the application. Developing one personal statement to be used for every application is not in your best interest because although the applications questions have some overlap, there are slight differences in how a program may ask the question. If you do not provide a direct answer to our applications prompts, then this affects the evaluation of your application and may hinder you from being offered an interview.”
Currently the program accepts 10 students per year, and hope to expand to 12 students in the near future. If you’re interested in joining a future class, learn more about Ohio State University’s program on their website.
In 2014, a Genetic Counseling Program Development Committee was formed and charged with exploring the feasibility of establishing a Genetic Counseling Program at Bay Path University. A study showed a void of programs specifically in Western Massachusetts which led to many qualified applicants being turned away. In November 2016, the program received accreditation from the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC).
Photo Credit: Bay Path University
Program Director, Susan Capasso, MS, EdD, explains that obtaining clinical sites has been one of the greatest obstacles in developing the program, “Many genetic counselors do not have the ability to take on students due to time and space constraints. However, many are excited about being a part of this new hybrid program and are eager to help. It is hoped that as more genetic counselors enter the workforce more sites will become available for all genetic counseling programs so that this will not be as difficult.”
One aspect that makes the program unique is its hybrid online/in-person format. The class of 12 students will start with a two day orientation at the East Longmeadow Campus followed by other meetings with speakers and activities. Students will do community projects with other Bay Path University programs including starting a National Organization for Rare Disorders student chapter.
The flexible delivery of courses allowed Bay Path University to recruit students from different areas in the country and currently the clinical sites are predominantly in Western Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut, but sites throughout the United States are being added. Capasso believes that “by allowing the students to do their clinicals in different areas, they will have rich and varied experiences. Students will also have rotations in the laboratory, and industry in the program.” A few of their current affiliation sites include Bay State Medical Center, UCONN, Yale, St. Vincent’s Medical Center, New York Health department, and Bay State Molecular Lab. Capasso is also taking requests from students for specific sites across the country.
Students in the program will have a mentored independent research project and will present their research results at the annual Bay Path University Academic Achievement Day. They will also submit abstracts to the New England Regional Genetics Group and the NSGC or other organizations for presentation at the regional and national levels.
For those interesting in applying to the program, here’s what Capasso is looking for in a candidate, “I believe that it is important to have solid grades in the sciences, to develop a strong well written personal statement on why you would like to be a genetic counselor, to be personable with great communication skills, to have worked or shadowed a genetic counselor, and to have some experience working in some capacity with children, families or fellow students. When you come to the interview be yourself and don’t be afraid to express yourself. If you are not accepted into a program try again, strengthen your application. I have been contacted by applicants who did not make it into a program including the program at Bay Path and we discussed what they could do to strengthen their applications. These applicants are currently working to reapply again and approaching the experience in a positive way.”
Check out Bay Path University’s genetic counseling hybrid online/in-person program on their website.
The motivation to start the Thomas Jefferson University genetic counseling program was in a partnership between The Delaware Health Science Alliance, Thomas Jefferson University, the University of Delaware, Nemours and the Christiana Healthcare System. This alliance sought to improve patient care and recognized the importance for a genetic counseling program based on the increasing demand for genetic counselors.
Zohra Ali-KhanCatts, MS, LCGC. Photo Credit: Christiana Care News
One of the initial challenges in developing the program was the decision regarding which would be the degree-granting institution; ultimately it was concluded Thomas Jefferson University was the best fit. Once this was decided, Co-Program Directors, Rachael Brandt, PhD, MS, LCGC and Zohra Ali-KhanCatts, MS, LCGC faced the challenge of developing the program in an area with a fellow genetic counseling program nearby, “We developed the curriculum so that the content is integrated vertically (within each term) and horizontally (across terms), with intentionality such that students’ academic acquisition is complemented with related content and applied toward clinical performance in a stepwise fashion. For example, prenatal related content is provided in one term and a prenatal clinical rotation would occur following that term.”
Rachael Brandt, PhD, MS, LCGC Photo Credit: Thomas Jefferson University
There is a list of 28 institutions currently in the process of developing affiliation agreements with Thomas Jefferson University, a few include Albert Einstein Medical Center, Atlantic Health System, Bay Health Medical Center, Fox Chase Cancer Center, Geisinger Health System and Recombine.
The program is small with six students in each class. To become one of these students, applicants can take advice from Brant and Ali-KhanCatts, “Students are encouraged to critically evaluate their application to include solid GRE scores (ideally 60th percentile) and a GPA of 3.0 with high grades in pre-requisite classes, to shadow with a genetic counselor to the extent that a recommendation can be provided and ample amount of cases is observed from which students can be reflective during an interview, and to submit a personal statement that reflects the individual, not one that just reiterates the resume. Program Directors want to be moved by the personal statement, so they can understand who the person is applying, not just what he or she has done, but how these experiences have made an impact.”
Explore Thomas Jefferson University’s genetic counseling program further by visiting their website.
For a small state, New Jersey is quite diverse, and has a number genetic professionals working both in hospital and non-hospital settings. Until now, there has not been an accredited genetic counseling Master’s program in New Jersey. With today’s job market the need and justification for a program was clear. In 2013, Rutgers University merged with the leading medical school in the state, creating Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. This merger between the academic and clinical sides created the right atmosphere for Rutgers’ Genetic Counseling Masters Program (GCMP) to be developed.
Photo Credit: Rutgers University
Rutger’s new program has been met with enthusiasm from genetic professionals across the state. For some, like Program Director Jessica Joines, MGC, CGC, it’s exciting to see the revival of the program, “Rutgers was actually a pioneer in the field of genetic counseling, having a program during the 1970s – so it has been quite an honor to have the opportunity to build the program once again. We hope the GCMP alumni will provide a steady stream of genetic counselors to fill openings around the state and beyond.”
As a new program, Rutgers is in the position to shape the curriculum to meet the evolving nature of the profession. New Jersey is home to many biotech and genetic testing companies and Rutgers has collaborated with these organizations to create a variety of experiences and opportunities for their students. Affiliated clinical sites located in New Brunswick include Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson, Rutgers Cancer Institute of NJ, and St. Peter’s University Hospital with additional sites throughout the state.
Joines shares that their inaugural class of six students will “begin rotations in the spring of their first year. The goal of these rotations is to practice beginning skills and to observe the practice through a new lens. The main and more in-depth clinical rotations begin in [the following] summer with the objective of allowing students to have ample time to develop advanced skills and also be available to perform all case management roles, including results disclosure and report writing. In their second year, students will each have a semester long rotation with a genetic counselor/professional working in a non-hospital setting (examples include GeneDx, Amicus Therapeutics, Reprogenetics). We aim to have our graduates feel prepared to enter a variety of jobs both inside and outside of hospitals.”
Joines offers her insight as a program director for applicants, “We do acknowledge that it has become increasingly difficult to obtain shadowing experiences (especially for applicants in certain areas of the county) – so think outside of the box for ways to deepen your understanding of the profession – attend Open Houses, watch NSGC master videos, interview genetic counselors over coffee, get involved with support groups for patients and families with genetic diagnoses.” For students who don’t receive admission on their first try, Joines offers additional advice, “If you don’t get in after applying, don’t give up. Many incoming students are re-applicants. Set up a time to speak with the Program Directors of your top choices and find out what you can do to improve and then do it! This shows maturity, dedication, and self-awareness – all qualities of successful genetic counselors!”
Learn more about Rutgers’ program on their website and in-person at their next open house on October 14th!
Interested to hear about more brand-new genetic counseling programs? We have interviewed all program directors with newly ACGC accredited status, the other half of our spotlights are in Part I of this blog post.
You can also 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 email@example.com!