Friday, August 18, 2017

Reapplication: A Worthy Challenge

     There is a distressing feeling that accompanies finding out you have not been accepted to any genetic counseling programs. For months, you have agonized over every letter of your personal statement, typed and retyped answers to application questions, entered the basic details of your life on form after form, and paid fees in hopes of receiving an interview. This does not even account for the hours of shadowing, volunteering, working, studying, and soul searching that go into preparing for the application process.
Remember, Hercules may have suffered some defeats, but
he still persisted, and so can you!
     Then, as days stretch into weeks after hitting that scary “submit” button, you begin to receive messages from programs either telling you, “thanks, but no thanks,” or, “please, do come join us for an interview.” The interview process itself is its own Herculean labor. At the end of each one your jaw is sore from smiling, your mouth is dry from conversation, and your eyes are heavy from lack of sleep. Sometimes you leave feeling completely satisfied with your performance. Sometimes you nitpick the way you answered that last question when you were starting to feel tired.
     The next part is the long wait for Match Day. Some days you feel confident that you will be telling your family members all about class and clinic in a few short months. Other days you think that the chances of getting in are a million to one. The mind games seem worse when you need to re-explain that when you say you will find out April 25, you mean you will find out April 25, not next week, not tomorrow, not today. And yes, that is plenty of time to find an apartment. You are not the first to do it, nor will you be the last.
     After all of this work, to find out you did not make the cut feels devastating. But is it all for naught?
     The short answer is no. The long answer is a little more involved.
     Reapplying to a program that did not accept you the previous year does not “look bad.” If anything, it shows that you are willing to pause, reflect, and improve upon yourself, all qualities vital to a good genetic counselor. There are many students who do not make it in on the first try. From my experience, the unintentional gap year was a positive one, and getting accepted the second time
The path to success may not always be clear, so sometimes
we must forge our own way.
around made it all the sweeter.
     Before you begin reapplication, set aside time to feel sad. Spending months on a project that does not come to fruition is tough, and it is okay to acknowledge that.
     The next step on your journey is answering this question: Is genetic counseling right for me? Think about what you have learned throughout the application process and whether you can pursue it again. If your answer is yes, reach out to programs for pointers on how to improve your application. The most helpful question I was asked during this time is, “What is your plan for the next year?” Program directors like hearing your ideas because it shows you take initiative and that you care about the profession.
     Then, of course, you need to execute your plan. For everyone, this will look a little different, but here are some general pointers:
  1. Learn everything you can about genetic counseling. One way to do this is shadow more. Reading is also very helpful. Some personal favorites are The DNA Exchange and Genome Magazine – both online, both free. NSGC has some great, free webinars too! The Journal of Genetic Counseling and Genetics in Medicine are both great resources that can be accessed through many university libraries. Many states also have genetic counseling associations with annual conferences you can attend, which is definitely something to include on your resume.
  2. Update your personal statement to reflect changes you made since the previous cycle. You want to showcase the hard work you have put in for any programs viewing your application again. Make sure those writing your letters of recommendation receive an update on your additional accomplishments as well should some of them be the same people.
  3. Practice interview questions. Being able to answer questions about your strengths, weaknesses, times you encountered conflict, etc., should become second nature. Having some stock answers you can build upon will help you with confidence on interview day.
  4. Be open to new experiences. While learning a new skill or taking a trip may seem completely unrelated to the application process, everything builds upon who you are as a person. You never know what you may be able to relate back to genetic counseling, and it is more material to work with during interviews.
  5. Be confident. Failing to get in once does not mean you are any less capable of becoming a genetic counselor. It simply means that you were not as well prepared as someone else. Remember: you can – and will – take steps to remedy that.
     To be honest, reapplying is hard. It is a sense of déjà vu that you are simultaneously more and less comfortable with. I came to deeply appreciate the reapplication process. Ultimately, it was a time for me to improve upon not just my application, but myself. And ultimately, the experiences I had during my unintentional gap year will make me a more capable genetic counselor. So, I challenge those of you reapplying to rise to the occasion and make this your best year yet. Good luck!

--Meg Hager, Class of 2018

Friday, August 4, 2017

Experiences of Working With Sickle Cell

For my hourly work position, I have the pleasure of working in two different, yet collaborative settings.  I am a student worker for the Pediatric Sickle Cell Department at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, as well as a program assistant at Children’s Sickle Cell Foundation, Inc. (CSCF,Inc.) Working in a dual capacity allows me to learn about sickle cell disease in a clinical setting, as well as from a community advocacy standpoint.  Both perspectives have made for a valuable experience with regards to genetic counseling during my first year.  
Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.
In the clinical setting, I have had the opportunity to shadow the pediatric sickle cell team members during their clinic days. I have learned about the clinical management of sickle cell disease and other hemoglobinopathies. The department is responsible for sending out letters for positive newborn screen results for sickle cell trait. This is one of my primary tasks along with managing the clinic’s sickle cell database, and keeping our patients’ clinic visits, medications and referrals up to date. This summer, I had the opportunity to provide pre-test counseling for University of Pittsburgh student athletes for the mandatory NCAA sickle cell trait testing. My supervisor and mentor is Dr. Cheryl Hillery.  She is enthusiastic and open to my participation in any and all clinic activities.  She is currently guiding the development of my thesis topic, which focuses on the medical transition from pediatric to adult care for young adults with sickle cell.  This transition occurs between the ages of 18 and 22 and is often a busy and challenging time for this age group. Having a potentially life-threatening, chronic illness to manage can be a source of anxiety for these teens and young adults and it can be intimidating to meet and interact with a new set of care providers in the adult setting.  
In addition to working in the clinic, I typically work one day a week assisting the Program Director, Heather Tucker, with providing programs for children and adults with sickle cell disease through Children’s Sickle Cell Foundation, Inc., a non-profit, community-based organization in Pittsburgh. We work as a team to plan and execute programs and activities for children with sickle
An image depicting normal and sickle-shaped red blood
cells. Photo from the Mayo Clinic.
cell disease and their families. Our most recent event was the annual Sickle Cell Fun Day at Kennywood amusement park.  Earlier this summer, we spent the day with our families, provided a catered lunch for the families along with fun activities like bingo and raffles for those who were not as interested in going on amusement rides.  Our Saturday SMASH Sickle Cell Wellness Program, (SMASH stands for Stay Motivated, Active, Smart and Healthy) is growing steadily.  One activity we made available to families during the summer months was the Learn2Swim program that provides children and their families access to swimming in a heated pool(This is important for individuals with sickle cell disease; exposure to cold water can trigger a sickle cell crisis.).  During the school year, the focus is on education and coping along with various physical activities. Year round, we provide free tickets to plays, sporting events and museums around the city and all of these programs are open to children with sickle cell disease and their families, providing much needed family time.  I enjoy meeting the families and getting to know them. In this role, I am also able to learn administrative skills by managing our Facebook and Twitter pages and by designing the monthly calendar that is sent to families who are part of our community.
Through interacting with the staff and families of CSCF, Inc. I have learned how sickle cell disease affects kids and adults from a personal standpoint. I get to hear their stories and work for an organization that works to provide them the resources they need in order to succeed and continue “Living Well with Sickle Cell®.”

-- Emily Mazzei, Class of 2018