Two lovely genetic counselors and leaders within the National Society of Genetic Counselors paired up to experience and write about having ancestry testing to learn more about their Hispanic roots. As NSGC’s Ancestry Expert, I was invited along to provide commentary. The post went up recently, just in time to recognize Hispanic Heritage month. Check it out!
“Many people are confused about what a genetic counselor does, and many who might benefit from seeing a genetic counselor may not know we exist,” said Mary Freivogel, president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC).
Providing support, answers, and resources to consumers of DIY genetic testing was my main mission in founding Watershed DNA. A secondary goal was to help more people understand genetic counselors - who we are, what we do, and how our expertise can be valuable even in situations of genetic testing ordered from home.
I recently began a series of blog posts to help introduce genetic counselors to those who might not be too familiar. I'm calling the series "Base Pairs" (inspired by fellow genetic counselor and writer Deepti Babu who was highlighted in my first series post!).
This post features genetic counselors KT Curry and Amy Curry Sturm. The questions start off with a common one genetic counselors receive!
How did you find out about the profession of genetic counseling?
Amy: I first learned of genetic counseling during a development psychology course in undergrad. We had to research a topic, there was one paragraph on genetic counseling, and I was intrigued! After writing my paper, my professor, whom I adored, confided in me that he and his wife lost a baby with trisomy 18. He told me how they had genetic counseling, and how important it was to their recovery process. This left a huge impact on me - I was hooked! I later shadowed Heather Hampel, a rock star genetic counselor at Ohio State. That's when I really knew this career was for me, and the rest is history.
KT: While earning my degree in Psychology I signed up for an elective genetics course, on the notion that it wouldn’t be boring :) I found it endlessly interesting but had no idea at that time that I would or could turn this interest into a profession. Luckily I worked my way through college, as a professional dancer with the Rockettes, with plenty of time to decide what type of career I wanted to end up in after my first retirement.
Did you learn about genetic counseling from someone in your family? Did one of you influence the other?
Amy: I absolutely did NOT learn about genetic counseling from anyone in my family. I'm from a very small rural Ohio town. My mom was a stay at home mom turned teacher, and my dad was a small business owner and recreational farmer. No one in my family had ever heard of genetic counseling, or met a genetic counselor.
I love sharing that I am so passionate about genetic counseling and love my career so much that I was able to "convince" a New York Radio City Music Hall Rockette dancer to become a genetic counselor! My fabulous sister-in-law, KT Curry. KT is married to my little brother, Gus. They met while doing theatre together in New Hampshire. While dancing as a Rockette in Manhattan, she was also working on her undergrad degree, and became interested in genetic counseling! I was thrilled! I still recall sitting with her in their upper west side apartment reviewing graduate schools and applications. I connected KT with colleagues of mine to shadow. She just graduated from the University of Minnesota's program and I am so proud to not only get to call this amazing lady my sister-in-law, but also my genetic counseling colleague! Being able to spend time together in Phoenix at the ACMG meeting was the best. We've always been close and had a special connection, but now we're official base pairs!
KT: I met my husband, whose sister was a genetic counselor, and over the first few years I learned more and more about the genetic counseling profession. Amy encouraged me to seek out opportunities to get involved with different communities related to genetics. I started volunteering at Gigi’s Playhouse in Harlem, New York learning how to teach adaptive ballet and creative movement to kids with Down syndrome and their siblings. This experience inspired me to apply for a graduate program in genetic counseling! I was very lucky to have Amy as a resource during this period to guide me through shadowing other GCs and helping me connect with people completely outside of my current field.
How does having a common profession influence topics of conversation and discussions during family gatherings?
Amy: No joke - we were drawing pedigrees [family trees] on the chalkboard in my basement bar over the holidays this past December! I also had a chance to share Thai food and genetics conversation with KT and her parents while in Phoenix for the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics meeting this past spring. We talked about everything from scaling genetic counseling to funny childhood stories, so it's a great mix!
KT: I love having a family member in the same field! Amy and I have been able to meet up at professional conferences together within the past year which was a blast. During holidays we definitely drew out a pedigree on a board in her house to discuss a complex case. We received some eye rolls from the family :) For me, It’s also been nice to have someone to bounce ideas off of and act as a mentor. As a new practicing genetic counselor, it’s fun for me to see where I could be in 10 to 15 years!
When I asked Amy and KT what people comment about having two genetic counselors in one family, Amy's answer summed it up nicely: Most people I've told think it's pretty darn cool.
Additional info about Amy and KT:
Amy Curry Sturm, MS, LGC, is a Professor and the Director of Cardiovascular Genomic Counseling at the Geisinger Genomic Medicine Institute. She is the 2018 President-Elect of the National Society of Genetic Counselors. Her interests include novel approaches to scale genetic counseling, the development of genetic counseling interventions to facilitate family communication, and methods to promote patient and provider activation in the setting of genomic medicine delivery, especially in the area of preventable types of genetic heart disease. She lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband Jeff and two kids, Jack and Stella. If she wasn't a genetic counselor, she'd love to be an interior designer.
Kathryn (KT) Curry, MS is a genetic counselor in the pediatric genetics clinic at St. Luke’s Children’s Hospital. She is excited to be entering the field of genetic counseling and to see where it leads her. She has a special interest in ethics and children and adults with neurodevelopmental disabilities. She lives in Boise, ID with her husband and is a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota.
Learning how those in my profession of genetic counseling were drawn to the field interests me. There aren't too many of us -- around 4,000 genetic counselors practice in the United States, and a modest amount work outside of the US, often seen spelled with two Ls in counsellor.
Each story of a GC's path to their professional niche is unique.
TWO genetic counselors in one family piques my interest further (rare squared!).
A fellow writer and genetic counselor Deepti Babu and her husband Sajid Merchant are one of the rare husband/wife couples in the field of genetic counseling. I decided to interview Deepti and Sajid and learn how there came to be two of them! Thank you for sharing your story, Deepti and Sajid. I enjoyed hearing your story, especially the part about the bed-and-breakfast host who took notes about you on her index card and later tried to be your "matchmaker". Sounds like your story was meant to be.
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!
Today's the day for the first annual #NSGCGenePool Twitter Chat. Yay! If you miss it live, search for the hashtag #NSGCGenePool, and play catch-up on the posts.
Countdown has begun. 7 days until Twitter gets a hefty dose of passionate genetic counselors sharing about what drew them to their calling. You can follow the discussion live next Thursday, or you can follow me on Twitter @GCBrianne to catch up later.
Tweeters, follow using the hashtag #NSGCGenePool.
A hashtag is what we used to call a pound sign back in the olden days. Sheesh! My DNA can barely keep up with all of these changes going on in the world!
The National Society of Genetic Counselors is the professional society for the small-yet-growing population of genetic counselors in the United States. I've been a member for the past 14 years and actively involved in NSGC as a volunteer during that time. My activities have ranged from writing articles and helping draft position statements to presenting webinars and leading task forces that have sought to answers questions that arise about direct-to-consumer and other genetic tests.
To reach even more people, the NSGC has asked a group of those involved in social media professionally to be involved in promoting the various efforts of NSGC. This group of digital ambassadors has been (very cutely) named the NSGC Gene Pool.
I am so happy that just in time for summer, I'll be diving in to the Gene Pool! If you follow me on social media, you'll probably notice a slight shift over the next few months. In addition to my posts related to ancestry testing and genealogy, you'll begin to see more tweets and posts related to various topics at the intersection of genetics and health, not just consumer genomics.
There is so much to learn, but I am happy to be a part of an association trying to get the information into the hands of those it can affect positively. #knowledgeispower!
For more information about my services click here.
Originally posted in 2015, this guest blog post "DNA, Ancestry Testing, and You" is still relevant today. Follow the link to get the whole scoop: http://nsgc.org/p/bl/et/blogaid=405
On the heels of one webinar for genetic counselors, updating the profession on the status of "direct-to-consumer" genetic tests, Brianne is busy prepping for another. Members of the National Society of Genetic Counselors will be able to tune in on July 20th, 2016 to learn about Brianne's decision to launch Watershed DNA, and also about the businesses of two other genetic counselors who have also chosen an entrepreneurial path. Will this uncommon choice for the small but burgeoning profession of genetic counseling become more common? Only time will tell.
NSGC members, check nsgc.org for more information about the July 20th webinar.