By Lillie Mermoud
Entering a new environment, especially a doctor’s office can often be uncomfortable and nerve wracking. As patients enter the Smith Family Clinic for Genomic Medicine, Amber Glaze, the clinic’s genetic counseling assistant, is a calm and comforting presence.
From check-in to cheek swabs to counseling sessions, Amber accompanies patients throughout their appointments with the clinic’s genetic counselors as they undergo genetics evaluation and receive results from genetic and genomic testing.
The Smith Family Clinic is located on HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology’s campus and is creating a direct pipeline to train the next generation of genetic counselors, by giving talented and compassionate professionals like Amber an opportunity to experience genetic counseling hands-on.
A growing demand for genetic counseling
Genetic counseling is a specialized field in healthcare that involves providing information, support, and guidance to individuals or families who have or are at risk of having a genetic disease. Working with a genetic counselor helps patients understand genetic results, make an informed decision about their medical situation, and get support in adapting to their condition or risk.
“The goal of genetic counseling is to make patients feel more empowered with their own treatment, to talk to their physicians, and to have a better understanding of themselves,” says Amber. “Patients can feel better equipped to use that knowledge to address their specific medical concerns. If you can make someone who is scared or unsure leave feeling relieved and confident, that’s amazing.”
As genetic testing becomes more affordable and physicians are more aware of its benefits, the demand for genetic counselors is growing exponentially. The number of certified genetic counselors has grown by 100% since 2010, and demand for hiring genetic counselors is expected to grow by 18% by 2031, faster than most other professions in the country.
Gaining a competitive advantage
Students must receive a Master’s degree from an accredited program and pass the American Board of Genetic Counseling’s certification examination to become certified genetic counselors. However, acceptance into genetic counseling programs is extremely competitive.
“Genetic counseling schools are as competitive as they are because they accept small class sizes,” says Amber. “They want to know that you’re sure genetic counseling is what you want to do and that you’re prepared for it.”
To make their application more competitive, many genetic counseling school applicants choose to spend a year as a genetic counseling assistant (GCA) in a clinical setting. Becoming a GCA can help an applicant fill in gaps in clinical experience and provide valuable exposure that better prepares them for their careers.
Journey to genetic counseling
Amber graduated from the University of Alabama in Birmingham (UAB) with a Bachelor of Science in Genetics, a program partly overseen by the university’s Hugh Kaul Precision Medicine Institute. After taking a molecular genetics course freshman year, she knew she wanted to learn how genetics research has a direct impact on families.
Throughout her undergraduate career, Amber researched SLC6A1-related disorders, neurodevelopmental disorders and delays caused by a rare mutation in the SLC6A1 gene. Though Amber was working with a family whose child was diagnosed with this condition, she missed directly interacting with patients.
Following a conference in which patients, physicians, and genetic counselors had a chance to network and exchange experiences, Amber knew she wanted to become a genetic counselor. To get there, she would need to secure a GCA position to boost her graduate school applications.
During the spring of her senior year, Amber participated in Explore: Genetic Counseling, a workshop hosted by the genetic counselors at HudsonAlpha, who also staff the Smith Family Clinic. The workshop included activities on variant interpretation, family history collection, medical record review, and simulated results disclosures to help participants get an idea of what genetic counseling looks like on a day-to-day basis.
At the end of the workshop, when the team announced that a GCA position would become available later that spring, Amber knew that was the opportunity for her. “I needed more hands-on experience,” she says. “I had extensive experience in research and had done a lot of one-on-one interviews with practicing genetic counselors across the country, but I lacked time in a clinical setting.”
The Smith Family Clinic’s unique GCA program
Each year, the Smith Family Clinic selects one applicant out of many to become the clinic’s GCA. The program begins over the summer, with the expectation that the GCA will apply to genetic counseling school the next spring.
“We’re looking for applicants who intend to go to genetic counseling school and become genetic counselors full-time,” says Meagan Cochran, MS, CGC, Director of the Smith Family Clinic. “We created this position five years ago as a way of helping serious genetic counseling students to become more competitive for grad school and, in turn, to become confident and prepared certified genetic counselors. We invest a lot of time into our GCA each year.”
The clinic’s GCA position offers a unique experience, because genetic counselors at the Smith Family Clinic also serve on HudsonAlpha’s Educational Outreach team and participate in several of the Institute’s research projects.
GCAs assist with clinical and clerical duties at the clinic as well as participate in student experiences and workforce development activities that the education team puts on. That helps spread awareness and interest in genetic counseling. In addition, GCAs get a firsthand look at the genetic counselors’ involvement in large-scale genetic research projects that the Institute is involved in, such as BabySeq, the Alabama Genomic Health Initiative, and ongoing projects on childhood genetic disorders.
“In my undergraduate research, I felt like I was being selfish of my professor’s time,” says Amber. “Here, I am the only GCA. The genetic counselors are all more than willing to help and include me in what they’re working on.”
Fueling the future of genetic counseling
The Smith Family Clinic’s GCA program not only prepares hopeful genetic counselors with hard skills and clinical experience but also equips them with the core skills and confidence they need to succeed by immersing them in the world of genetic counseling.
There are a growing number of GCA programs throughout the country, ensuring that the demand for certified genetic counselors is met by creating a strong workforce development pipeline and training the next generation of genetic counselors to be fully prepared to serve.
“Before my role as a GCA at the Smith Family Clinic, I had an outsider’s perspective of genetic counseling through interviews and personal research, but this experience is more substantial and meaningful,” says Amber. “I’m growing a better perspective on the field, and can see what my life and career would look like. I know I’m gaining the skills I need to succeed in graduate school and beyond.”