Welcome from the Director and Co-Directors
Judith Tsipis, Director
2012 is a very special year for Brandeis’ Genetic Counseling Program. It’s the program’s 20th Anniversary and my 20th as its (founding) Director. I remember well our first planning meeting in 1991 when I had lunch with three genetic counselors (Emily Lazar, Elaine Sugarman and Marsha Lanes) who together helped design the curriculum in a way that integrated coursework in molecular biology (such as it was in 1991), human genetics, clinical genetics, counseling theory and technique and health policy with clinical training at most of the hospitals in Greater Boston. To celebrate, we are hosting a Reunion and 20th Anniversary party at Brandeis during the NSGC Annual Education Conference to toast our wonderful students and alums and the amazing faculty who have taught them over these many years.
Our current faculty include our two Co-Directors, Gretchen Schneider and Beth Rosen Sheidley, our 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 have also been very fortunate to have Missy Goldberg as our Program Administrator for many years -- 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. Twenty years ago, the program started as “a crazy dream” of mine and today we have over 170 alumni. Many things have changed since 1992 but our priorities remain the same: providing students with a first class education in both the classroom and the clinic; empowering students with the 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
It is truly incredible to be part of a field that has changed so much in just two decades. In my professional lifetime, technological advances have given us the ability to perform non-invasive prenatal testing, test embryos to select for ones which do not carry familial disease-causing mutations, sequence the entire genome of an individual and predict a person’s response to medications based on their genetic makeup. We have gained a better understanding of the molecular basis of many diseases, greatly increased the number of testing options available during pregnancy, and identified many cancer susceptibility genes that we can use to test high-risk individuals. This tremendous progress has also contributed to the expansion of the field of genetic counseling beyond the traditional prenatal setting to now include areas such as cancer, clinical research, education and industry. It is a certainly a very different world than the one I entered as a newly-trained genetic counselor.
Twenty years ago, I was a new graduate from the Master’s Program in Human Genetics at Sarah Lawrence College, eager to join this fascinating profession. I began my career as a genetic counselor at Boston Children’s Hospital in pediatrics and as coordinator of their Neurofibromatosis Program. That same year, Brandeis launched its own Master’s Program in Genetic Counseling, the first in Boston, and admitted its inaugural class. My connection to the Brandeis program began way back then, as a clinical supervisor for some of the program’s earliest students. Our paths have been intertwined in many ways since then and our relationship grew, culminating in my joining the faculty as Co-Director of Clinical Training four years ago. I am now a “seasoned veteran” in the profession and Brandeis is no longer a “new” training program. But my passion for the field of genetic counseling and this program’s commitment to providing the very best educational experience for its students are just as strong as they were when we both began our exciting journeys. My enthusiasm for genetic counseling now focuses on shaping the future of the profession that I love: watching our new graduates begin their first jobs, helping our second years transition from students to professionals, and welcoming a new and enthusiastic group who are excited to begin their training. Working with students is such a meaningful experience and I cannot picture myself doing anything different at this point in my career. I also cannot imagine doing this at any other training program than the one here at Brandeis.
Beth Rosen Sheidley,
Co-Director, Research and Professional Development
It is difficult to believe that it has been 20 years since I entered the Brandeis Genetic Counseling Program as a member of the first class of 1994, and began my professional journey that spanned 3 cities and 4 genetic counseling positions before returning to Brandeis in 2005 to join the faculty. Looking back on the last 7 years as a faculty member in the Genetic Counseling Program, I am amazed at how the Program has grown and changed since it began in 1992, at the educational opportunities afforded to its students, and at the accomplishments of its graduates.
And yet, I am also pleased to find that at its core, the Brandeis Program remains what I remembered it to be: a program that puts an emphasis on exploring all perspectives, including those of individuals and families living with disability and chronic illness. Throughout their training, Brandeis students learn directly from those dealing with disability and illness. They work with disabled children and meet with adults and families living with disabilities in both institutional and home settings, and participate in social activities as well. At Brandeis we also prioritize inviting speakers to campus to share their personal stories. The spring semester of 2012 featured the mother of a young child with Down syndrome, a mother and daughter at risk for hereditary breast cancer due to a BRCA gene mutation, and a young man with cystic fibrosis who had run the New York City marathon just months before, at the age of 39. Each of these individuals spoke candidly of their experiences and left lasting impressions on the students and faculty. This past year in particular we reflected on the role of genetic counselors with respect to people with disabilities, after a series of articles questioning the relationship between these two communities appeared in the American Journal of Medical Genetics. At Brandeis, we continue to be proud of the many ways in which we incorporate disability awareness into our curriculum.
Much of my role at Brandeis centers on the process of developing and carrying out master’s thesis projects. Through coursework and individual meetings, I help each student design and implement an original research project. Our students continue to shine when it comes to their individual projects. Among the Class of 2012, 10 students will be presenting their work at the upcoming National Society of Genetic Counselors Annual Education Conference in Boston. All of the students in the class of 2012 were awarded research funding by the Brandeis University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and one student was awarded a National Society of Genetic Counselors Jane Engle Memorial Fellowship Student Research Award, for her project, “Cystic Fibrosis Carrier Screening: Current Practices and Challenges in Genetic Counseling”.
Since many genetic counselors now work in clinical research settings, our students shadow local counselors involved in clinical genetics research, in specialties ranging from cancer to autism to brain malformations. We also spend considerable time talking about human subjects protection and new directions in clinical genetics research. The past several years have seen a new emphasis on researchers releasing individual results back to study participants. This shift in thinking, coupled with the advent of whole exome and whole genome sequencing technologies, presents new challenges to genetic counselors working in clinical research settings. Genetic counselors are among a small group of healthcare providers tasked with helping individuals and families navigate their way through DNA sequence variants of unknown significance, unanticipated findings, and incidental findings.
Finally, having returned to part-time clinical work 2 years ago with the Boston Children’s Hospital Epilepsy Genetics Program, I continue to be humbled by the strength, determination and sense of humor of the families that I see. As the landscape of genetic technologies and their applications continue to change rapidly I also remain convinced of the importance of genetic counselors, and their role in supporting families.
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