Genetic Pearls: My Recent Chat with a Pioneer in Genetic Counseling

Myrna Ben-Yishay, MS, CGC, has been a genetic counselor for 37 years. After receiving her Master’s degree in Human Genetics at Sarah Lawrence College in 1975, her first job was in Tel Aviv, Israel. The field was unknown at the time and she was the only genetic counselor in the country. Upon returning to New York in 1977 she accepted a position with Dr. Harold Nitowsky, one of the first medical geneticists, at Albert Einstein College of Medicine that later transitioned to Montefiore Medical Center. She recently retired after 35 years. Over her career she had the opportunity to provide genetic counseling for pediatric, prenatal and adult patients. For the past 17 years she specialized in cancer genetic counseling. She has mentored numerous genetic counseling students, medical students, residents and fellows.

Myrna sat down to talk to the PJGH about her experience as a genetic counselor and to give advice to newcomers to the field.

1) How has the field of genetic counseling changed since you started your career?

In the 1970’s our genetic knowledge was very basic. We knew there were 46 chromosomes and thousands of genes. Based on clinical observation of families and case studies, we could determine if a disease was likely to be hereditary and provide families with verbal risk assessment. Over the years the human genome has been sequenced and 20, 000 genes have been identified. Disease causing mutations are now known for many diseases and accurate genetic testing is available to determine who is a carrier or affected with a disease. Families can now be offered precise genetic testing and have the information they need to make informed decisions.

Also, prenatal diagnosis was once limited to women over 35 in order to determine how many chromosomes a fetus had. Today first trimester screening and genetic testing for chromosome abnormalities is available for all pregnant women.

2) What are the most important traits or skills needed to be a good genetic counselor?

Among the many skills required of a genetic counselor  the most important are a solid understanding of molecular genetics and genetic diseases, excellent communication skills, and empathy.

3) What is one piece of advice you have for people who are considering a career in genetic counseling?

I would advise someone to consider becoming a genetic counselor if they are very interested in human genetics, psychology, patient contact, and excited to be in a field where new information is constantly unfolding. My career as a genetic counselor has been personally and professionally rewarding.

Thanks, Myrna!

Posted on October 11, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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