Friday, February 17, 2017

Pitt's Genetic Counseling Club off to a Good Start

A passion for science combined with a desire to understand people fosters unique character. It cultivates a person with empathy and strength, focus and balance. This person is a genetic counselor.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a career typically found on a high school aptitude test…

Thus, like many students in their final years of high school, I found myself trying to decide where to go to college with no real understanding of myself or my professional calling. I knew I didn’t want to be submerged in medicine, but also didn’t want a job that focused on working with people without a science component. When I asked my high school biology teacher if any jobs existed somewhere in the middle, he asked:

“Have you ever heard of genetic counseling?”

This question sparked my curiosity and fueled what is now my burning passion. Though my teacher didn’t know much more about this oddly balanced profession, I ventured out on my own to find more information.

In my searches, I realized that genetic counseling was not just something I wanted to do, but a profession that I was made to do. Throughout high school, I was involved in many theater and music programs, but also enjoyed going home to a date night with my biology book. I started looking for colleges, and happily landed at the University of Pittsburgh, where I decided to pursue a Biological Sciences Major and take as many classes focusing on genetics and the human body as possible. In addition, I decided to pursue a Music Minor and an American Sign Language Certificate to balance the scientific and psychosocial aspects of my education. Ultimately, I considered this a stepping stone to a graduate program in genetic counseling.

Throughout my undergraduate career, I found myself having to do a lot of independent research on how to get into a genetic counseling graduate program. I had to research which classes constituted as prerequisites and which activities would help prepare for a career in genetic counseling. The many times I had questions, I didn’t have anyone else to ask or even someone to compare notes with. By no fault of theirs, career offices and professors had limited answers because genetic counseling is such a niche field. Additionally, I didn’t feel comfortable contacting the head of the Pitt program as a young college student, worried that if I applied to Pitt, they would remember me as unknowledgeable!  (Note from program directors at Pitt: This is not the case! We welcome contact from students at any stage in finding out about genetic counseling to contact us!)

Fast forward to my senior year; the Assistant Director of Pitt’s genetic counseling program, Andrea Durst, approached me about starting a genetic counseling club at the undergraduate level. Although I had decided to take a gap year before going on to graduate school, I realized that I wanted to serve as a mentor for those sitting in the same position I had four years ago. My fellow officers and I hope this club will be able to not only serve as support system for those who know they want to become genetic counselors, but also to inspire and educate those who have only heard whispers of this great profession.

Thus far, the club has had two meetings, elected a new Volunteer Coordinator, and gained over 20 members to its roster. We are looking forward to having many students and genetic counselors attend to share their experiences, tips and tricks, and open a line of communication for anybody who wants to learn. If you have any questions, or would like to be added to our email list (you do not have to be an undergrad at Pitt!), please feel free to email 

-Jessica Feldman, President of the Pitt Genetic Counseling Club

Friday, February 3, 2017

Educational Opportunities

The Pitt genetic counseling students have the opportunity to participate in a number of educational experiences that enhance their training including educating high school and undergraduate students about the genetic counseling profession. Read on to learn about some of our students’ experiences educating others about genetic counseling.

“I really value my experience leading small group discussions with some AP Psychology high school students. We worked through a genetic counseling session together as a group and discussed complex ethical issues surrounding genetic testing. I was very struck by how thoughtful they were in their answers. They were all very interested in genetics and compassionate regarding how it could have a major impact on people’s lives. As the leader of this discussion, it was the first time I was in an ‘expert’ role in regards to genetic knowledge, and having such a positive interaction early in my educational experience gave me great insight into the role of a genetic counselor in a session before I entered into rotations.” - Emily Griffenkranz, Class of 2017

“I had the opportunity to speak to the Tri Beta biology honors society about genetic counseling this semester, and I really enjoyed the experience. I ultimately decided to become a genetic counselor after listening to some graduate students talk about their program, so after speaking to the undergrads about my program I felt as though I had come full circle. I can only hope that our discussion inspired one of the students in the audience in the same way that I was inspired by genetic counseling students when I was in college” - Julia Stone, Class of 2018

“I also had the opportunity to give a presentation to college students in Grove City, PA introducing them to the field of genetic counseling. I enjoyed the teaching experience and was glad I could help increase knowledge about genetics, as it is such an important public health goal.” - Claire Leifeste, Class of 2018

“I spoke to some students in Grove City, PA about genetic counseling and my experiences in Pitt’s program thus far. Although most students in the room were on the pre-med track, I still think it was important information to pass on to future medical professionals so they can better direct people to genetics services in the future. I believe educating people about what genetic counselors can do is a major component of growing the profession and expanding personalized medicine throughout our healthcare system.” - Meg Hager, Class of 2018

“Educational experiences at the University of Pittsburgh allowed me to share my passion for public health and genetic counseling with high school students who were part of the Health Career Scholars Academy. I was able to first introduce careers in public health and then specifically genetic counseling and its applications to public health to these students. The students were then divided into groups and I was able to go through a genetic counseling scenario and discuss public health and ethical implications. It was really amazing to not only share my passion, but to also hear the thoughts of my future fellow public health professionals.” - Brooke Hornak, Class of 2017

“I spent a day last year getting to talk with some amazing teenagers affiliated with the Huntington’s Disease Society of America’s National Youth Alliance at their annual conference.  These teenagers and young adults are personally affected by Huntington’s disease, and wanted to learn more about genetic testing options available for them in the future.  To facilitate a thoughtful discussion, we broke up into small groups and role-played scenarios involving individuals trying to decide when and how to get tested for Huntington’s disease.  The teens were amazing; right away they understood the emotional complexities that come with testing, and were wonderfully gracious in sharing their own personal experiences with me.  It’s always a wonderful experience to help educate others about genetics, but this particular group was a pleasure to work with, and I was so grateful that they allowed me to listen to their own journeys and struggles with Huntington’s.” - Emily Massiello, Class of 2017