The story behind the creation of the Program is best described as the intersection of the two worlds – scientist and mother of a child with a genetic condition. In 1976, Founding Director Judith Tsipis, with a PhD from MIT, joined the Brandeis faculty as a member of the Biology Department. Her first son Andreas was one at the time and, while he had delays in his development at a very early age, it wasn’t until he was 13 that physicians identified the underlying cause of Andreas’ problems, Canavan disease. This personal experience, along with an inherent love of science, is what inspired Judith to start a genetic counseling program in order to train professionals to help families like hers. In her book, “Telling Genes”, Alexandra Minna Stern beautifully depicted Judith’s story and described her as “a smart, highly educated woman based in academia with access to significant resources” who “was motivated by a mix of maternal love, parental anguish, scientific expertise, and people skills.” These qualities, and an incredible amount of determination, culminated in the establishment of the first Master’s Program in Genetic Counseling in New England and Brandeis admitting its first class in 1992. Twenty-six years and over two hundred graduates later, the strength of this Program is a testament to Judith’s unwavering dedication.
The Genetic Counseling Program continues to honor the life of Andreas Tsipis. Shortly before his death at the age of 22, Judith and her husband Kosta established a scholarship fund in Andreas’ name to help support genetic counseling students. In addition, the strong focus on understanding the perspectives of individuals and families who are touched by genetic disease remains a core part of the curriculum today. During this year’s wintersession, an annual event attended by both students and faculty, Judith was our inaugural speaker and shared the story of Andreas’ life with Canavan’s disease. In recognition of the legacies of both Judith and Andreas as part of the fabric of our Program, we began the event by renaming Wintersession to “Learning from Personal Narratives: The Annual Series Honoring a Child of Smiles and Judith’s Crazy Dream”. It is our hope that despite retiring, Judith will continue to share her own story so that students and faculty will appreciate how this program began and why its focus is so valuable.