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Rutgers genetic counseling master’s program receives official accreditation


The Rutgers Genetic Counseling Master’s Program (GCMP) recently received accreditation from the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC). 

According to a brochure regarding the program, the GCMP is a two-year graduate program that aims to prepare students for the rigors associated with the profession of genetic counseling.

“The GCMP is a master’s level program to train future genetic counselors. Genetic counselors are health-care professionals that work with patients and families with a variety of genetic or suspected genetic disorders,” said Jessica Joines, Director of the Genetic Counseling Master’s Program.

“(Genetic counselors) are important in helping those patients and families understand the medical facts of their diagnosis, their current risks and options for management,” Joines said.

According to the brochure, the application period has already passed and the program is preparing to accept its first class for Fall 2017.

The GCMP is fairly competitive to get into because the program and others similar to it tend to be small, Joines said. A strong science background and job shadowing are highly recommended.

In addition to the entry of the new class, the GCMP has also received accreditation from the ACGC.

The ACGC is the governing body that oversees all the genetic counseling programs in the United States to make sure they are educating their students to prepare them well for genetic counseling, Joines said.

This is important because if a student were to go to a program that was not accredited, they would neither be able to sit for their national certification exam nor would they be eligible for licensure, if licensure existed in the state that they want to practice in, she said.

The accreditation of the GCMP at Rutgers comes with several benefits.

“We are the only accredited Genetic Counseling Master’s Program in the state of New Jersey. This accreditation demonstrates that we have the academic and clinical resources, that we train our students and that we have numerous clinical rotation sites,” Joines said.

Graduate students start clinical rotations during the spring of their first year.

In clinical rotations, students will be assigned to go intern with genetic counselors in a variety of specialties. Under supervision, they will provide genetic counseling to the patients that go to that clinic, Joines said.

"It’s a very hands-on learning experience for students in terms of being able to actually provide counseling to real patients before they graduate and get out into the field," she said.

Along with academic and clinical resources, the ACGC considers other factors as well when accrediting universities.

The ACGC takes location into consideration.

“There hasn’t been a genetic counseling program in New Jersey,” Joines said, “Especially with the recent merging of Rutgers and Robert Wood Johnson (RWJ), it made sense that it should be here.”

It is not just graduate students who are able to take advantage of these opportunities. Undergraduates who have a passion for genetic counseling also have a chance.

The Genetics Counseling Certificate Program (GCCP) was created for undergraduate students who are interested in genetic counseling, said Katherine Donohue, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, who is also part of the GCCP. 

The GCCP, whose founder and director is Dr. Gary Heiman, is the only certificate program offered to undergraduates in the country.

“I joined the GCCP because I love science and people,” Donohue said. “I wanted to explore both. I just saw genetic counseling on the Rutgers website through the Genetics Department and I thought it was really interesting."

Donohue said the University is unique in the opportunities it offers students. 

“The best thing about Rutgers is that there are so many opportunities. You can do research, you can shadow, you can do whatever you want, so I think as an undergraduate it’s smart to take advantage of this opportunity.”

Progress is not just being made at Rutgers, but also within the field of genetic counseling.

“Many of the latest advancements in genetic counseling are related to the variety of jobs that genetic counselors are now working in,” Joines said. “Historically, genetic counselors have almost exclusively worked in a hospital setting seeing patients, but now more of them are working for genetic testing labs, or genetic technology companies, in sales, in marketing, and so on.”

This field is also responding to changes within the medical community.

“Genetic counselors are in dire need as we move towards genomic medicine and precision health-care. It’s such a blooming field,” Donohue said.

Along with these advancements, individuals also seek assistance from genetic counselors among a variety of specialities.

Generally speaking, any individual who believes that there could be a genetic disease in their family or could have a genetic diagnosis or syndrome themselves would seek a genetic counselor. This is applicable to pediatric, cancer, and prenatal specialties, Joines said.

In the prenatal specialty for example, there could be suspicion, through prenatal testing or an ultrasound, of a chromosome problem such as Down Syndrome in an unborn child. Joines said this is a classic example of something that requires the attention and assistance of a genetic counselor. 

This is not just a learning process for students, but for patients as well.

"Caring for individuals and patients and helping them understand what genetics really means in their health-care is something I really like," Donohue said.

The field of genetic counseling could also have long-term effects in the scientific community.

Genetics can help in determining what is in store not just for humans, but for all living organisms, said Chinmayi Mungara, a first-year student it the School of Arts and Sciences. Genetic counseling specifically can be beneficial because it tells parents, for instance, if there’s the chance that their child could have a possible disorder. This field could also lead to lower mortality rates, especially in babies.

Genetic counselors are in high demand both in New Jersey and across the country.

“I hope that as a genetic counselor I can really make a difference in the lives of patients and individuals who don’t understand what their genetics means to their health-care,” Donohue said. “I hope I can dispel myths about genetics and help to explain why it’s so important when having to think about your health and the health of your family or children.”

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