Genetic Counseling

School of Health and Human Sciences

The HHS Lifetime Legacy Award is a prestigious award reserved for an alumnus who has served as a pioneer in his/her field of study and who has tirelessly given of his/her treasure through time or talents spanning a number of decades. No one has been a more extraordinary pioneer in their academic and professional career than Nancy J. Adams.  Nancy is credited with bringing the profession of genetic counseling to North Carolina almost 35 years ago.Nancy Adams

Nancy Adams received her undergraduate degree in Nutrition from UNCG in 1960. After several years of relevant employment, she became interested in the emerging health field of genetic counseling. At that time, only two graduate programs in the U.S. offered graduate programs in genetic counseling – one at Sarah Lawrence College in New York and the other at the University of California Berkeley. Undaunted, Nancy returned to UNCG and created her own graduate program. With support from the Department of Biology, she created a plan of study and clinical practicum that resembled the genetic counseling programs offered at the other institutions and received her MS degree in Biology with a focus on Human Genetics in 1977. “The best way to predict the future is to create it,” says Nancy. It is easy to see why this is one of her favorite sayings. Following her graduation she was employed in the Division of Genetics and Metabolism at UNC-Chapel Hill as the first genetic counselor in North Carolina. Her academic achievements and clinical experiences qualified her to be among the first genetic counselors to be certified by the American Board of Medical Genetics in 1982.

Nancy Adams was always “ahead of the curve” with regards to genetic counseling. In 1980, when one of the earliest prenatal screening programs was introduced in North Carolina,

Nancy Adams was hired to establish and manage the program in 13 counties in North Carolina. This was no easy task. She literally went door-to-door educating obstetricians and other health care providers about the program, establishing protocols for obtaining samples, reporting results, and following up on abnormal findings. She created educational materials for patients and providers, and personally provided the follow up counseling and testing for woman with positive screening results. This type of screening is now routinely offered to pregnant woman throughout the United States. But Nancy Adams was, in fact, one of the pioneers in establishing this type of screening program.

In the early 1980s, most genetic counselors worked in clinical positions in academic medical centers. But this didn’t stop Nancy Adams from leaving the university environment to apply her skills not only as a genetic counselor, but in marketing, business and management, as a co-founder, Vice President and General Manager of the first private prenatal diagnostic clinic in North Carolina. As such, Nancy was able to provide genetics services to clients in a less institutionalized environment, with a focus on meeting the individual needs of clients seeking these services. Once again a pioneer, she informally mentored many genetic counselors who were seeking opportunities to apply their skills in genetic counseling in non-traditional settings. “Be flexible and learn how to market yourself,” Nancy wisely advises the next generation of genetic counselors. “You may find yourself in a place where there is no position for a genetic counselor. Try to create one for yourself. I call this ‘bloom where you’re planted.’”

But Nancy Adams’ story does not end there. A few years later, she was the first genetic counselor employed Laboratory Corporation of North Carolina in Burlington and Research Triangle Park where she was hired to establish the Genetic Services Department for this national laboratory. In this position, she developed materials that would be used to provide education about genetic testing and counseling for patients and physicians throughout the United States. She later provided training for sales representatives, physicians and other health care providers on a national level. When she “retired” from this position her title was Associate Vice President and Director of Genetic Services.

Not surprisingly, Nancy Adams would not stay long-retired. She decided to return to her roots and sought opportunities to get back to the clinic to work with individuals and families. But, always the pioneer, this time it meant introducing cancer genetic counseling services at the community level in Greensboro, NC at the Regional Cancer Center of the Cone Health System. Nancy Adams was successful in documenting the need to have these services available at the local level, and was ultimately hired to provide these crucial services to individuals and families with inherited forms of cancer.

In the fall of 2000, North Carolina established a graduate program in Genetic Counseling of its own at UNCG, with Nancy Adams as integral member of the planning committee! For the past 12 years, she has provided opportunities for our genetic counseling students to observe, learn, and practice genetic counseling in a supervised clinical rotation. Each year all first year students have had the privilege of observing Nancy Adams in clinic, and several second year students benefited from her individual mentoring as a clinical supervisor. Nancy has been an exemplary role model because in addition to her many talents and accomplishments throughout her professional career, she remains a compassionate and skillful health care provider – a “master” genetic counselor. “Always take time to build rapport with your patients,” says Nancy. “You may have explained breast cancer or Down syndrome a thousand times but it may be the first time your patient ever heard of it.” She continues to remain actively involved in our program as a member of the External Advisory Committee.

Nancy Adams has made a significant impact on the field of genetic counseling, not only in North Carolina, but throughout the United States. We are honored to publicly acknowledge the significant contributions and achievements that Nancy has made in her lifetime as the HHS Lifetime Legacy Award Recipient!

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