How did you get interested in counseling?
Sajid: During my fourth year of undergrad, my professor gave us a pamphlet on careers in genetics. It was a full two pages, but back then only had a tiny blurb on genetic counseling. It still caught my attention because it called for expertise in genetics and psychology, and my background was in genetics, psychology, and philosophy (ethics). However, I continued with my plans and started graduate studies doing research but felt like something was missing… my suspicions were confirmed after coming to the lab after a holiday long weekend. My lab colleagues were excitedly going on and on about something… we were all twentysomethings, so I figured they had a killer weekend of partying or something. Instead, I discovered they were thrilled about an experiment where a worm successfully flipped one way versus another! When I realized that I would never be excited about something like this, I decided to pursue what I loved. I was already volunteering at a few spots, including counseling, so I remembered that pamphlet and thought genetic counseling could work for me.
Deepti: Interesting, I guess we found out about genetic counseling at the same points in our lives! In my senior year of undergrad, a genetic counselor came to a Bio class to speak about her career. This was 1995 and I had absolutely no clue what she was talking about! I mentally filed it away under “interesting” and left it. I took a year off after graduating to decide whether to try for medical school a career in research (I’d already nixed culinary school, although I’d still like to go in my next life). I moved across the country to take a lab research assistant job in Tennessee, where I knew nobody. I learned a ton, including an incredible recipe for cornbread and that pursuing lab-based research was not for me. Somehow, my mind recalled that genetic counselor’s presentation and I contacted a local genetics clinic to shadow and learn more. It just went from there.
Did you learn about genetic counseling from someone in your family, or did you influence someone in your family to attend school for genetic counseling? How did that all come about?
Sajid: My family are largely actors, artists, musicians, and lawyers. The few “science people” or people in the medical field are a bit like the black sheep. So no one influenced me to apply to genetic counseling programs except my de facto second mother, a dear family friend, who pointed out that my background was ideal. I’m pretty sure a part of my father still thinks I should have gone into computers – the wave of the future – and encouraged me to take a Fortran programming course instead of philosophy during undergrad. However, as they have always been, my parents certainly were supportive once the decision was made!
Deepti: I think it was helpful that time passed between when I heard about genetic counseling and when I applied to training programs. There’s so much that you process when you’re not thinking about it! This time also allowed me to get solid exposure to the genetic counseling field before applying (because it’s not for everyone). No one in my family had a clue about genetic counseling when I was applying to programs – it was blank stares all around. My parents, both physicians, got behind it when I explained it to them (pretty remarkable, since much of it was taken on faith).
How does having a common profession influence topics of conversation and discussions during family gatherings?
Both: Probably like other couples in the same profession, we take shortcuts when talking about our work and share newsy updates with each other. We were fortunate to work together (in independent practices) in the same clinics for the first 15 years of our careers. It was awesome to have our most trusted colleague right there as a sounding board! Our sons (11 and 7) likely hear more about genetics and DNA than their peers – after all, they have been collecting CEUs all their lives by attending genetic counseling conferences, many even in utero! We figure that, at this point, they should have enough CEUs to recertify?
Sidenote by editor: Genetic counselors are expected to stay up-to-date and earn credits or CEUs for attending educational lectures or participating in other types of ongoing professional development. There is always something new to learn, making it a fast-moving and exciting profession.
Have you received any surprising comments from having two genetic counselors in your family?
Both: Anyone that knows about the genetic counseling field’s demographics is usually intrigued, and those are often fellow genetic counselors. Most others think it’s interesting, but not super exciting – it’s like having two of any other profession in a family. It’s possible many people are trying to figure out what a genetic counselor even does in the first place, not how there are two of us in the family. We think it’s pretty cool, though, and Sarah Lawrence even wrote an alumni newsletter article about us, their first genetic counseling couple to graduate from the training program!
How did you meet?
Both: We were classmates in Sarah Lawrence College’s (SLC’s) genetic counseling training program and we’ve been a base pair ever since! Somehow, we both stayed at the same bed-and-breakfast when we interviewed at SLC. The host, a very (overly?) friendly and helpful woman, wrote down information about all her guests on index cards. Deepti stayed with her first; when Sajid stayed, the host got excited because another guest had recently stayed with her for the exact same reason. In fact, she enthusiastically pulled Deepti’s index card out – yep, with all her demographic details – and gave it to Sajid. Despite the fact that she’d just made a major confidentiality breach (we can just imagine the genetic counselors cringing as they read this), the host thought we’d get on well and wanted Sajid to reach out to Deepti. Bored while waiting to fly home from his interview, Sajid drafted a letter to Deepti but never sent it – his common sense finally kicked in and he realized it would be creepy. But, as fate would have it, we met at school and immediately hit it off – in fact, our classmates took bets on how long it’d take for us to start dating. For the record, Sajid was the only man in a class of 22 – people joke that he joined the field to meet women, but he got his Master’s and met his future wife in the program… not bad, eh?
More about Sajid and Deepti:
Sajid Merchant, MS, CGC is the Lead Genetic Counsellor for the Edmonton Medical Genetics Clinic and Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta, as well as a past President of the Canadian Association of Genetic Counsellors. Sajid earned his Master's in Human Genetics/Genetic Counseling from Sarah Lawrence College in 1999. He is particularly interested in the delivery of medical genetic services, the ethics of genetic counseling and testing, inherited blood disorders, and enjoying good beer and chocolate (both dark, of course).
Deepti Babu, MS, CGC, is the Vice President of Communications and Patient Advocacy at ThinkGenetic, Inc. and incoming Director-at-Large with the National Society of Genetic Counselors. She earned her Master's in Human Genetics/Genetic Counseling from Sarah Lawrence College in 1999. Her 15 years of working with families with genetic conditions infuse her writing, editing, and communications work and numerous volunteer projects. She is also often poring over cookbooks, being grilled by her sons on superhero factoids, or writing about her family’s foodie gene on her blog.
Do you know of a genetic counselor "Base Pair"? Encourage them to contact me through my website, and perhaps you'll see your friends or colleagues highlighted in a future post!