The Base Pair posts are a series I started to highlight professionals in medical genetics who are a stellar team or have a special history that bonds them, like genetic base pairs A, T, G, and C in a DNA double helix. This Base Pair post is about Janet and Marc Williams, a beloved pair in the world of medical genetics and genetic counseling.
I was lucky to cross professional paths with Janet and Marc while I worked for Geisinger Health System a few years ago. This duo has guided so many students and colleagues over the years and has touched so many families and individuals through their clinical and research work. They demonstrate not only how to earn respect in your chosen profession but also how to gracefully dance between family and work life.
Janet is a masters-trained genetic counselor and Marc is an MD geneticist, and both are excellent at what they do. The parents of two adult daughters and grandparents of two, they make time for family and spend time appreciating the arts. They both like antiquing for mid-century art and furniture, and Marc plays bass trombone professionally in the Williamsport Symphony Orchestra. Marc and Janet are each other’s biggest champions, and together, they champion the work of genetic counselors.
Thank you to the newest Base Pair for sharing their sage advice below.
If ever more bases are added to the DNA alphabet, no doubt “Marcanine” and “Janetine” would have to be their names!
How did you get interested in or learn about genetics and genetic counseling?
Janet: As best as I can recall, I learned of genetic counseling in the last paragraph of my high school advanced biology textbook, which said something along the lines of, "Someday there will be the opportunity to talk with families about risk for genetic conditions." I majored in biology and minored in chemistry at a small college without a lot of choice over courses. For my senior seminar, I offered to present on "amniocentesis" and wrote my senior paper on Huntington’s disease. Outside of my school work, I tutored a young high schooler who had attentional difficulties and mild cognitive disabilities. These things developed in me an interest providing information and support to individuals and families.
I first approached graduate school with an intention to apply to PhD programs with a desire to focus on genetic counseling-type work, not laboratory science. There were apparently eight genetic counseling training programs back then, but I only knew of five (this was pre-Internet). I was pleased that Joan Burns wrote back and invited me to join the program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I was in the second graduating class.
Marc: I married a genetic counselor and she subjected me to ongoing consciousness raising until I succumbed and went back for training in genetics. More seriously, having discussions with Janet about her interesting cases created curiosity about genetics. I was able to work with an outstanding genetics mentor during by pediatric residency which encouraged my interest and eventually led to fellowship training.
How does having a common professional sphere influence topics of conversation and discussions during family gatherings?
Janet: Our kids would say it constantly impacted conversation at the dinner table, however both went down the music pathway, not science. They have been tuned in to health care issues their whole lives. Our daughter who is a teacher asks us about genetics topics, voiced from a place of concern about particular students in some of her classes. We enjoy talking about aspects of our work and enjoy working together, but I wouldn’t say it overtakes our conversations at home.
Marc: I think our daughters would answer yes. As for the more extended family to a lesser degree.
How has the profession of genetic counseling affected your career?
Janet: Being a genetic counselor is at the core of who I am. I have always been interested in helping families to understand their rare and often complex genetic conditions. The fact that this profession also allows me to continually do research, gain new knowledge, and to better understand what individuals and their families find useful is so gratifying AND interesting. I have been privileged to be let into family moments throughout my career related to good news and bad news. I have been the bearer of bad news, and blamed for it, and also recognized for the wealth of information that I took the time to share with individuals who were desperate to learn as much as they could about the situation in front of them. I have had the opportunity to discuss planning for new life, planning that life will end, and managing risk in order to live life to the fullest. Many more times I was able to put things into some context for patients and their families, sometimes even to say “You don’t need to worry about that concern, because it does not apply to you or your family.”
Marc: As noted above, I would never have become a geneticist. Also, working with genetic counselors as part of my training improved my communication skills and patient engagement. Being able to work together is a blessing that has enriched our relationship both personally and professionally. I am grateful to have been able to work together in genetics for over 25 years and don’t know how I’ll manage when Janet retires at the end of this year.
What are some pros and cons of working with your significant other?
Janet: I feel that Marc and I are a good team together. While we don’t necessarily agree on everything, we are pretty good at seeing the other’s point of view and can sometimes help to communicate that to others if needed. We respect each other’s perspective and appreciate our respective contributions. My husband is a shameless schmoozer. He talks with everyone, never stops asking questions and makes it a point to introduce himself (and me). I am the beneficiary of his brashness. Although I have been in the field for years longer, he knows more people and especially leaders in the various fields—including genetic counselor leaders!
Life can be challenging when the little things result in a default bickering. Neither one of us likes to give an inch, and we each like to be sure that our point is fully appreciated. In my case, my husband often chooses to reveal more about ANYTHING than I would choose to do. It is hard to live and work with someone who has remarkably few inhibitory neurons.
Marc: The biggest pro is being able to spend more time with my best friend and colleague. The biggest con is when she points out that I’m wrong after making some definitive pronouncement. This happens way more frequently than I would like, and what really galls me is she’s almost always right. More seriously, we have very complimentary knowledge and skills combined with strong leadership qualities that makes for an effective team.
What advice do you have for new graduates just now starting their careers in genetics?
Janet: Listening to patients and their families has taught me more than I can ever hope to pass along. It seems so trite, but really listening to patients and family members is key. Giving the best explanation of autosomal recessive inheritance or multifactorial conditions may feel safe, but it is often not what patients need. Put on your listening hat and ask like you really mean it: “So, what are you hoping to learn today? I want to be sure to address your questions before you leave…”
Marc: Marry well? Seriously, my advice is based on the Quaker philosophy, ‘Go forward as the way opens.’ What this means to me is to try not to plan everything, but keep open to new possibilities. When I graduated from medical school we barely knew the correct number of human chromosomes (only a slight exaggeration—banded chromosomes were just becoming a thing), and now I analyze human genomes on a computer in my office to make a diagnosis. I could never have predicted the huge advances in molecular and information technologies, but by being open to new ideas (and being arrogant enough to say, hey I can do this), I’ve never experienced boredom or stagnation in my 37 years of practicing medicine. Perhaps my career path is better characterized by the Japanese samurai philosopher Ikkyu who said, ‘Having no destination, I am never lost.’
Congratulations on your impending retirement, Janet! We have all been blessed by your contributions to the field of genetic counseling and wish you the very best in your next life chapter.
And hey, Marc, even if you retire some distant day in the future, promise you won’t leave Twitter, okay?
Readers, if you know Janet Williams and would like to send in a congratulatory card ahead of her retirement later this year, post it to me by November 1, 2018 (Watershed DNA, PO Box 126, Crozet, Virginia 22932). I will make sure she receives it!