Mixing science and psychology for a fascinating profession
by Amy Vaerewyck | University Communications
Cortney Morrow had always loved science, but she didn’t love the idea of life in a lab. That’s why she decided on the field of genetic counseling.
“It mixes sciences with psychology,” said Morrow, who is a second-year student in the Graduate School’s, Genetic Counseling program at CU Anschutz . “We aid in diagnosis, but we’re also able to focus on how a diagnosis makes a patient feel and how it affects their family and their future children. We get to have that personal human connection.”
Established in 1971, the Genetic Counseling program was the third of its kind to exist in the U.S.
“We’re proud of the program and have developed a strong reputation over the years,” said Carol Walton, MS, CGC, the program’s director and an associate professor of pediatrics in the CU School of Medicine.
Genetic counseling gives job security
Since the completion in 2003 of the Human Genome Project—which determined the sequence of the chemical base pairs of human DNA and mapped the total genes of the human genome—there has been what Walton calls an “explosion of genetic testing.”
In the past, doctors would see a patient for a particular symptom and sometimes order many individual genetic tests in search of a diagnosis. Now, with the increased knowledge from human genome mapping, newer testing methods can look for changes in multiple genes or many regions of the patient’s genetic material simultaneously.
The test results are both comprehensive and complex, often telling a very important story about the patient’s current and future health, as well as that of their future child. Patients need someone to help them make sense of the medical data. Enter genetic counselors.
“There’s a paradigm shift happening that’s going to be a whole new frontier for genetic counseling,” Walton said. As the field of genetic counseling expands, specialty areas are increasing, creating new opportunities for genetic counselors.
When asked if she feels confident about her professional future, Morrow said, “Oh, yes. I have job security, because the skills I learn in grad school can be applied to various specialties, even as the field changes over time.”
A fascinating field to work in
Genetic counselors are involved in the diagnosis process, but their role expands beyond that to dealing with the effect of the diagnosis on the patient—physically, psychologically and emotionally.
“We translate medical terms into words that patients and their families can understand, as well as provide resources and help them cope with the diagnosis,” said Jessamyn Nazario, another student in the program, who is interested in cancer genetics. “And the technology is advancing so rapidly.”
The field’s ongoing development has been a driving factor in Walton’s long career.
“I find genetics fascinating,” Walton said. “I’m never bored. In the 25 years I’ve been doing this, the field has gotten more and more interesting.”
Clinical emphasis makes a difference
Morrow chose CU Anschutz’s genetic counseling master’s program over others for its strong emphasis on clinical practice. Students in the two-year program each complete 1,000 hours of clinical practice, beginning in the second semester of their first year—unlike most programs, in which clinical rotations take place in the second year.
“That was one of the major things I looked at when I was selecting a program,” she said. “How ready will I be, when I graduate, to go off and see patients?”
Nazario had known since high school that she wanted to be a genetic counselor, and when it came time for grad school, she came all the way from Miami to experience what the CU Anschutz program offers.
“It’s really nice to have most of the rotations right on the Anschutz Medical Campus where we also have class,” Nazario said. “This program is very accessible in terms of location.”
Not only do the clinical rotations prepare students for practice immediately after graduation, but they also provide valuable genetic counseling services to about 1,400 patients per year.
“Patients tell me I’ve made a difference in their lives,” Morrow said.