Boredom doesn’t suit me, and my family can confirm that. I’m pretty sure this restlessness and desire to change things up, likely due to my military brat childhood, drew me to genetic counseling – the field I joined more than 20 years ago as a doe-eyed Sarah Lawrence College student. My career decision induced blank stares and confusion when I told others (including my parents, both physicians), since so few had any idea what it was.
And over the next 15 years, I carefully crafted a response to the "What do you do?" question. It worked, for the most part.
Until that question changed.
No one joins the genetics field to be bored. Every day brings new discoveries, ideas, and greater awareness. We’ve seen the Human Genome Project completed, a 15-year milestone that makes this year’s National DNA Day pretty special. Genetic testing options, built on growing scientific evidence and technology, are released at a staggering rate – more than 14 genetic tests, on average, enter the market every day. Genetic testing is also branching out of the medical system and towards health consumers curious about their genomes.
Genetic counseling itself evolves in response to increasing technology. My colleagues Erynn Gordon, Dawn Laney, and I are thrilled to have our American Journal of Medical Genetics, Part C article included in an issue dedicated to our field in the precision medicine era. Writing it helped us see ways that technology can help, such as by making the practice of genetic counseling more efficient to meet increasing demand.
When I graduated, Perspectives in Genetic Counseling, the National Society of Genetic Counselors’ member publication, listed jobs and members’ media mentions in every issue. Years later during my Executive Editor term, the team and I redirected that content – there was too much to keep up accurately.
My point is, genetic counseling is out there. It’s hard to get through a news feed without catching a story about genetics, genomics, or genetic counseling (even if yours aren’t tuned that way, like mine). And recently, rare disease and patient advocacy – both central to a genetic counselor’s work – are getting their well-deserved time in the limelight.
Which circles me back to that “What do you do?” question and how it’s changed. Nowadays, I see fewer blank stares when I tell people I’m a genetic counselor. Instead, I may hear, “Wow, that’s cool!” and the conversation might end there. Except that I’m curious and trained to ask people questions… so I do. What have they learned about the field? Why do they think it’s cool?
Many times, the answers are correct. The field changes quickly, is growing, it’s a solid career choice – someone might even know a genetic counselor personally. But honestly, there are a number of answers that are off-base. People may have the idea that genetic counselors tell people if they should have kids, that we’re capable of running and comprehensively interpreting a DNA test at lightning speed (thanks, “Grey’s Anatomy”!), or that we’re subversively plotting to create a league of superhumans using gene editing (OK, that extreme example was for my sons…).
Genetic counselors are increasingly myth-busting. It used to be that we’d have to explain what we do. Now we need to explain what we don’t do. It’s an effect of the field maturing, but one that we ought to recognize and address. We still need that response to the “What do you do?” question handy in our back pockets, but now it’s a good idea to add responses that correct misconceptions.
That back pocket’s getting pretty full, to be sure, but maybe we can adapt to it with wearable technology or something. It’s a good problem to have, changing and adapting. I have to remind myself of that when I wistfully reflect on how excited we were to analyze our own karyotypes back in the day as genetic counseling students, an experience shared by fewer (if any) every day.
But I’m glad to have that perspective. It helps inform and shape the conversations we have today, and the ones we’ll have in the future. And one thing’s for sure… I won’t be bored.
Happy National DNA Day! I'd love to hear your thoughts and ideas, if you'd like to share them.
Who writes this blog?
I'm an Edmonton-based writer and genetic counselor on the hunt for the foodie gene... my family is living proof that it exists. Read my blog for musings on food, genetics, and sometimes both at the same time!
© 2020 Deepti Babu
Photo from www.now.tufts.edu