The Genetic Counseling Program

Welcome from the Director and Co-Directors

Judith Tsipis, Director

tsipis

We welcome your interest in Brandeis’ Genetic Counseling Program as we begin our 22nd year. I am delighted to continue in my role as Founding Director and to have the pleasure of working with Gretchen Schneider, our wonderful Co-Director of 7 years. This year also brings big changes to the Brandeis GC Program. Beth Rosen Sheidley, the Program's Co-Director of Research and Professional Development and member of the inaugural class of the Brandeis Program, stepped down after 8 years to take a full time position as Program Manager for the Epilepsy Genetics Program in the Department of Neurology at Boston Childrens Hospital.
However, we are delighted to welcome two new faculty members to take on Beth’s responsibilities:

  • Gayun Chan-Smutko, a cancer genetic counselor at Massachusetts General Hospital since she graduated from Brandeis in 2002, is our new Assistant Program Director.  She will take over the reins for the community Fieldwork class and January Week programming as well as co-teach Introduction to Genetic Counseling with Gretchen. 

  • Elizabeth (Liz) McDonald Cross, an experienced researcher and statistics consultant, is our new Senior Advisor for Research.  She will be responsible for teaching the Research classes and providing support for student thesis projects from start to finish.

In addition to Gretchen, Gayun and Liz, our faculty include medical director Joan Stoler, as well as David Rintell, Judy Jackson, Janet Rosenfield, Kate Kramer, Barbara Lerner, Alice Noble, Joe Cunningham and Rachel Woodruff. We are also very fortunate to have Missy Goldberg as our Program Administrator – she has been a part of the program since 1995 and our students, alumni and faculty all know what a valuable resource she is. Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the many talented genetic counselors who give generously of their time to supervise Brandeis students in their clinical internships and help guide their master's thesis research.

We welcome the changes that occur from year to year but our core priorities continue unchanged: providing students with a first class education in both the classroom and the clinic; empowering students with the clinical and research skills that will allow them to grow and adapt along with the demands of the profession; and increasing students' exposure, comfort level and sensitivity to children and adults with disabilities.

Brandeis alums work all over the U.S. and the world. The majority work in major urban centers across the country but several work in more exotic places like Alaska and Hawaii. We also have alumni working in Canada, England, Israel and Germany. Most of them are in clinical practice, but many of our more recent graduates work in non-clinical settings such as diagnostic laboratories and clinical genetics research groups.

We encourage you to look through our website, learn about our curriculum, read about our faculty and gain insight into our alums' interests and accomplishments by leafing through the list of their thesis research.

Our students are a diverse group and we strongly encourage applicants from all walks of life to apply: those who might be making a career change; those who want to re-enter the work force in a new field; those who have always wanted to be a genetic counselor; or simply those who have just discovered the field and feel it's the right match and career for them. We hope to hear from you and welcome any questions you might have.

Gretchen Schneider, Co-director, Clinical Placements gretchen

As I begin my seventh year at Brandeis as Co-Director of Clinical Training, I find myself reflecting on how much the field of genetics and the profession of genetic counseling have changed.  When I graduated in 1992 and began working in clinical practice, there were no genes yet identified as the underlying cause of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, the only biochemical marker analyzed during pregnancy was alpha-fetoprotein and chromosomes were cut out of a photograph and manually arranged into a karyotype.  At that time, genetic counselors were a small force of fewer than 1000, most provided prenatal services, state licensure was not on anyone’s radar, and the certification exam was offered every three years.  Now, the field of genetic counselors has grown to over 3000 who work in a variety of clinical practice areas as well as in clinical research, diagnostic laboratories, industry and education. Genetic counselors now have their own certification exam that is offered twice a year, a separate organization that accredits genetic counseling training programs and have achieved licensure in 14 states. The developments in my professional lifetime have been astounding and the future promises to be equally as exciting.

Over the 20 plus years I have been in the field, technological advances have translated to a better understanding of diseases at the molecular level, an increased accuracy of many genetic tests, the introduction of gene panel testing and whole genome/exome sequencing, more options for couples seeking genetic risk assessment during pregnancy, and treatment for a number of genetic conditions by enzyme replacement therapy.

I often find myself teaching our students using anecdotes that begin with “When I was in graduate school…” or “When I was in clinical practice…” These stories are not to illustrate to them that things were harder for me, or that being a genetic counselor will be easier for them.  In fact, the provision of genetic counseling services in the current era is way more complicated than it has ever been because of the number of options available and the magnitude of information that today’s genetic tests will uncover.  Patients pursuing genetic testing may find out things about themselves, or their family members, that they weren’t even looking for. The genetic counselors are often called upon to assist individuals in understanding what these findings mean and, as a result, must be well trained in order to help patients make sense of this complex information.     

One of the many great things about the Brandeis program is its commitment to giving our students the knowledge and skills they need in order to succeed as a genetic counselor in today’s world.  With the constant changes in the field of genetics, this requires looking critically at our curriculum every year to be certain we are best serving the needs of our students.  We are constantly incorporating new learning methods into the coursework, teaching our students about the many advances in technology, and exposing them to novel paradigms for clinical practice. This year is particularly exciting with the addition of two new faculty members, Gayun Chan-Smutko, M.S. (a 2002 Brandeis graduate) as Assistant Program Director and Elizabeth Cross, M.S.W., Ph.D. as Senior Research Advisor.  These two individuals bring an incredible amount of experience and join our existing faculty and lecturers in creating an enriching educational environment while keeping the long-standing core values of the Brandeis program intact–a well-rounded curriculum with strong science and counseling content, an emphasis on the many issues faced by individuals and families with disabilities, a focus on self-discovery and solid clinical training.  I strongly believe that this allows our students to grow enormously during their time with us and leave well prepared to embark on their journey into the profession of genetic counseling.

Gayun Chan-Smutko, MS, CGC, Assistant Director

What a privilege to be at Brandeis again! Twelve years ago after graduating from the Genetic Counseling Program I definitely did not think that my path would lead me back to, well, home. I should not be surprised though, since I have always tried to maintain a connection as a guest lecturer or a clinical supervisor for student interns. But to speak about how I got here, I also have to look a little further back.

My parents fostered in me a strong interest in the sciences and I first became interested in human genetics while still in my undergraduate program. This led me next to industry where I immersed myself in human genetics research for complex disease traits. At that time I had no knowledge of the genetic counseling profession. Then several years later I attended a two-week intensive conference on medical and experimental genetics held at the Jackson Labs in Maine. There I met genetic counselors and geneticists and caught a glimmer of what it might mean to switch to the patient care aspect of genetics. I became hooked on the idea of taking my career in this new and exciting direction.

My role within the Program will initially be focused on providing first-year students with a foundation on the fundamentals of genetic counseling. It will include teaching portions of the Introduction to Genetic Counseling course. I will also coordinate community field placements and a guest lecture series focused on disability as part of the Fieldwork course. This course will provide students the opportunity to broaden their exposure to topics relevant to individuals with disabilities and their families through participation, observation and self-reflection.

I will also continue working part-time as a cancer genetic counselor at Massachusetts General Hospital. This is where my genetic counseling career began, and I’m glad that I will be able to maintain a clinical presence so that I can continue to exercise and hone my clinical skills and learn from my patients and colleagues.

This neat and pat summary might give the (false) impression that it has been a straight, predictable path or even that perhaps every step I have taken up to now has been in preparation for becoming a faculty member.  Well, I wish I had that kind of foresight. Nevertheless, I am certainly looking forward to working, teaching, and learning alongside my students and colleagues.

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