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Genetics counseling major considered at Rutgers U.

March 10, 2009

With the field of genetics growing, genetic counseling is becoming more prominent and may even become a new major at Rutgers University.

On Tuesday in the Life Sciences Building on Busch campus, the University Association of Undergraduate Geneticists Caroline Lieber said genetic counseling is a profession in the health care field that integrates practical knowledge and health care practices to provide information and support to patients.

“We promote patient understanding of the information given and give risk assessment as it pertains to the patient and their family members. We try to alleviate patient anxiety,” said Lieber, Director of the Joan H. Marks Graduate Program in Human Genetics at Sarah Lawrence College and a genetic counselor for 18 years.

University professor Gary Heiman said genetic counseling is being considered as a possible new major track by the genetics department of the School of Arts and Sciences.

The major would exist with resources to prepare its candidates for graduate school, Heiman said.

“This track would possibly include facilitating crisis hotlines and have genetic counselors able to do rotations on campus,” Heiman said.

But Lieber said a program already implemented at Sarah Lawrence College expects students to study a diverse range of subjects.

“Students should take classes in developmental biology, genetics, psychology, biochemistry and statistics. But training in active listening skills is important,” Lieber said.

Many people who see genetic counselors before they decide to have children are concerned about a genetic disorder or have a history of cancer or mental illness in their family, according to the National Society for Genetic Counselors Web site.

“Genetic counselors assist and support [the] patient’s decision-making process and determine patient satisfaction,” Lieber said.

Worldwide, there are about 3,000 genetic counselors, Lieber said. There are 31 genetic counseling programs in America that accept roughly 200 people with, the majority of genetic counselors being Caucasian women.

“Just about everyone who graduates with a master’s in human genetics gets a job. There is a high market for genetic counselors. However, this field requires geographic flexibility,” Lieber said.

Students like School of Arts and Sciences junior Ronik Patel thinks the field of genetics is interesting.

“Perhaps one day I will start genetic counseling back in India,” Patel said.

Lieber said shadowing genetic counselors and volunteering as a peer or crisis counselor is recommended for interested students to get an edge over other applicants.

“Genetic information changes the way people feel about themselves. People begin to define themselves by their genomic info,” she said.

The ethical boundaries of practicing genetic counseling deal with controversial issues such as insurance companies, designer babies and family dynamics, Lieber said.

“The reward of being a genetic counselor is that it is always changing,” Lieber said. “It is never the same each day and that is very exciting. The hardest part is that so few people know what genetic counseling is.”

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