Interview and article by Tatsiana “Tanya” Verstak*
Part 2: The path to genetic counseling
You mentioned you went to undergrad at UC Santa Cruz and you went to grad school in New York, what got you interested in becoming a genetic counselor?
I was very fortunate that I had a great AP Biology teacher. People come into genetic counseling because it peaks their interest for different reasons. there’s some who come in from a place of really loving science and genetics, there’s some people who come in from really loving counseling and wanting to basically help other people.
My place was coming from always knowing I wanted to go into counseling, I was fascinated by psychology and that was my interest but I didn’t know what that was going to look like until I hit the advanced genetics portion of my AP Biology course and it just clicked in a way that this was way more interesting than school has ever been for me. So, I had talked to my teacher about potential careers in the field and I knew that I couldn’t work in a laboratory, that that was just not going to fit well with my interests, and my skills, but she had mentioned this as a potential career opportunity. I was lucky in that even though it’s a very small field and not one that many people know about, I actually came to college with the goal of becoming a genetic counselor.
Accordingly, I double-majored in biology and psychology to get a really good wealth of experience in both of those fields. And then I ended up working for a number of years in San Francisco in a genetics laboratory and was a clinical coordinator consenting families for different research studies that we were doing, isolating DNA, and pipetting, and all of that. My decision to go to Mt. Sinai in New York: so I never thought I would leave California, to be completely honest, that wasn’t something that I ever intended to do. But working in that laboratory I appreciated that none of post-docs and fellows were from that area, many of them were international and the rest were from all over the country, but they had come there to pursue their dream.
I realized that sometimes it can be very beneficial to go somewhere else to do your training and there’s always the opportunity to come back but that if I had narrowed myself to just the three genetic counseling programs that were in California, I could potentially be closing doors. So that really opened up my mind to applying elsewhere in the country. I chose the program at Mt. Sinai in New York City because they were really doing exciting things with genomics, sequencing the entire genome. I really wanted to get involved with that and that was something that was not offered in the California programs. And then taking that opportunity in New York opened up my mind even more to potentially chasing the job that I wanted instead of the location that I wanted. Even though I had no ties or connections in Memphis, TN, I loved the job here and it’s been an incredible opportunity because I get to provide the clinical care that I want to regardless of the insurance with these families but I also get to work in research as well, and that’s been pretty neat.
The bench to bedside approach and the combination of research and clinical in this hospital is amazing. So what advice would you give to someone who is interested in genetic counseling?
That is a good question that I get asked about all the time, because thankfully knowledge of our field is spreading and I do talk to potential students quite often. The advice that I give is number one to get in and shadow a genetic counselor and to see if the work they are doing is something of interest. You need to have a very strong understanding of the science as well as a love and passion for working with families. It’s a very special relationship to meet with a family and very early on establish repoire and talk them through something that may be of concern in their family. I think you need good bedside manner and a lot of empathy and caring for your patients but also a love of the science.
Other recommendations are to volunteer at like a crisis hotline or something to get experience with handling working under pressure and very intense emotions. Not every session that I am in is a crisis situation, but some of them are and you need to be ready to handle that. So there are different things you can do to figure out a little bit more about yourself, and if that is of interest, then I would definitely suggest to go in and shadow.
*Tatsiana “Tanya” Verstak, M.S. is a Contributor to Clinical Research Currents.
She is a Pharm.D. Student at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC), a Research Associate at the UTHSC Office of Clinical Research, and a Pharmacy Intern at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. firstname.lastname@example.org
Citation for this article: Verstak, Tatsiana. “The present and future of genetic counseling: an interview with Emily Quinn, a certified genetic counselor at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.” Clinical Research Currents March 13, 2017. http://clinicalresearchcurrents.com