Genetic Counseling

School of Health and Human Sciences

Embracing the Role of Education
by Kelly East, Class of 2010

Kelly EastOne part of what attracted me to the profession of genetic counseling was the role genetic counselors have in educating patients about the impact of genetics on health and disease. It is crucially important for our patients, many of whom have been personally impacted by genetic disease, to be given the information and support necessary to make informed decisions and become self-advocates.

The last decade has seen dramatic growth in the field of genomics, driven by the development of faster and cheaper sequencing technologies. Genomic research has allowed for the further elucidation of gene mutations responsible for rare Mendelian conditions. In addition, genomics is allowing us to learn about the numerous genomic factors associated with common, complex diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and asthma.

There is a real need for genetics education beyond the traditional genetic counseling setting. As primary care medicine becomes more and more influenced by genetic information, all people are going to need a basic understanding of genetics to be informed health consumers. In addition, numerous studies have shown that many of our colleagues in other healthcare professions feel ill equipped to integrate genetics into their everyday practices.

Genetic counselors not only have genetics expertise, we are also trained to be excellent educators. We have the knowledge and skills needed to have a large impact on the genetic literacy of our patients, the public and other healthcare professionals.

Following graduation from UNCG in 2010, I accepted a position in the Education Outreach Department at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, AL. HudsonAlpha has a three part mission: performing world-class genomic research, stimulating economic development in biotechnology and providing genetics education to students, educators and the public.

Education Outreach at HudsonAlpha is involved in genetics education for all ages. We are actively involved in digital education. We currently have two educational Apps available (for free) in the Apple app store – a 3-D interactive model of plant, animal and bacterial cells (HudsonAlpha Cell) and an activity we call GenomeCache™. Using the GenomeCache™ app and website, educators can create a scaled model of the human genome and have students go on a genomic “scavenger hunt.”

We have also produced classroom curriculums and hands-on activities that are used across the state in 7th and 9th grade classrooms. Each summer we host weeklong middle school biotech camps, an intensive two-week teacher academy, and manage an institute-wide internship program. In addition, we host evening educational courses for the general public twice a year.

As a new genetic counselor in a “non-traditional” role, I often found myself wishing for a group of other genetic counselors interested in education to talk to and learn from. Through the NSGC listserv I met another genetic counselor involved in education at the undergraduate level. We decided to put an inquiry out to see how many other genetic counselors had an interest in education and see whether or not it would be feasible to start an Education Special Interest Group (SIG).

The response was great and the Education SIG was created. While all of the SIG members have an interest in education, there is great diversity in the specific audiences we are involved with: patients, public, k-12, undergraduates, medical students, genetic counseling students, and practicing healthcare professionals. The goals of the SIG are to create a place where genetic counselors interested in education can meet one another and collaborate on education minded projects.

It has been a wonderful experience over the past year getting to know the other SIG members, as well as gaining leadership experience by serving as the SIG’s first chair person. I am looking forward to watching the SIG grow over the next several years and am excited to see the projects we have begun to plan come to fruition.