By Karen Angelo
Genetic tests can predict the risk for certain diseases, giving patients data to make informed health decisions. But the results can often be difficult to understand. That’s where genetic counselors come in.
These master’s degree-trained health professionals counsel patients about inherited diseases that may affect them or their families, discuss how medical histories may impact the chance of disease occurrence and advise on which genetic tests might be right for them.
With advances in genomics, the field is booming. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the field is projected to grow 29 percent within the next decade, far outpacing average job growth. Professionals are in demand at clinics, research centers and in industry and public health agencies.
At a recent career seminar co-sponsored by the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences and the Career and Co-op Center, students from a variety of majors heard from three experienced genetic counselors about the various career options in the profession, as well as the challenges and rewards of their jobs.
“We need to communicate complex genetic concepts in a clear way so that our patients can make informed decisions,” said Carrie Blout, senior genetic counselor and project manager at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the Genomes2People research program. Prior to conducting research, she provided genetic counseling for pediatric and adult patients and their families in a pediatric and general genetics clinic as well as a cleft clinic.
Stephanie Coury, who is a senior pediatric clinical genetic counselor at Boston Children’s Hospital, shared real case studies to illustrate the type of decisions that genetic counselors face, such as when should they let parents know that their baby has a genetic syndrome and how to communicate to family members when they are at high risk for certain cancers.
Biology major Sarah Knowles liked what she heard about genetic counselors providing clarity to families in what may be turbulent times.
“After learning about genetic counseling as a profession ... I couldn’t think of something that I would enjoy doing more.”
-Med lab science option major Hanna Lafayette
“I was interested in the presenters’ personal stories and experiences as well as the nuanced discussions of case studies, which I feel gave a more solid idea of what being a genetic counselor is really like,” Knowles said.
The idea for the seminar came from Employer Relations and Career Development Specialist Diane Hewitt, who learned about the profession at a conference.
“Genetic counseling is a very interesting and dynamic career that isn't well-known to many undergraduates, yet is appropriate for a broad range of our undergraduate majors, especially medical and clinical lab sciences, biology, public health, psychology and more,” she said.
Asst. Teaching Prof. Kristin Palladino of the medical laboratory sciences program urged her students to attend.
“I wanted my students to know about genetic counseling as a graduate school option, because they have the perfect foundation for it as clinical laboratory science majors,” she said.
Panelist Gayun Chan-Smutko, who is associate director of the MGH Institute of Health Professions, offered tips on how to prepare for graduate school.
“The fact that you’re here at this seminar is a good first step,” she said. “You can shadow genetic counselors to make sure it’s the right career for you. It also helps to gain crisis counseling and patient advocacy experience.”
Students who attended the seminar were intrigued by what they heard. Medical laboratory science option major Hanna Lafayette was interested to learn about a career that combines her background in science with working with people.
“I've always known that I would miss having some sort of patient interaction if I stayed only in medical laboratory science,” she said. “After learning about genetic counseling as a profession and seeing how much they truly loved their job, I couldn't think of something that I would enjoy doing more. I would have the option to work with patients clinically and still be able to do research or work in a lab if I wanted to.”
“This is a growing field with such a great job outlook, and it was incredible to hear where this profession is going,” said Nicholas Shepherd, a medical laboratory science option major. “Genetic counseling would blend my love for the laboratory with my drive to help people in need. It is an exciting time to get into genetics, and there is no better place to do it than in Boston.”