As a scientist, I am used to running experiments, and, par for the course, oftentimes these experiments fail. I am pleased to blog here about an experiment we ran this past week at Einstein that proved to be a huge success! Specifically, the Program for Jewish Genetic Health (PJGH) ran its first ever Jewish Genetics Bootcamp, and for this endeavor I temporarily changed my role from Program Director to Camp (co-)Director (along with our two amazing PJGH genetic counselors Chani and Estie).
The camp was envisioned as a mechanism to introduce high school and college students who have expressed future career interests in genetics to the field (from the PJGH perspective). While students in this category sometimes intern with us or alternatively are mentored by us in more informal ways, unfortunately we cannot accommodate all requests for this. Camp, or more appropriately bootcamp (keep reading this blog…), was our three-day solution to this problem.
We decided to keep the inaugural group of campers small, since we thought this would facilitate interactions between the campers and the staff. Fortunately, the campers who joined proved to be outgoing, inquisitive, and insightful—which led to lots of questions, discussion, and debate. We even picked up 2 crashers!—undergrads who happened to be on the Einstein campus for summer research programs.
Camp PJGH centered around half-day sessions, presented by Chani and Estie, on three main topics: clinical genetics/genetic testing, Jewish genetic diseases that can affect offspring of carrier couples (e.g., Tay-Sachs and Familial Dysautonomia), and inherited cancer predisposition syndromes (e.g., hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome due to BRCA). Another more future-looking session was entitled “Expanding panels, expanding ancestries, and expanding technologies.”
Aside from these formal sessions, we also exposed the campers to a variety of genetics professionals—a genetic counselor, a PhD scientist, an MD reproductive geneticist, an MD pediatric geneticist, and an MD fertility specialist. The presenters reviewed their training paths, shared what their typical workdays look like, and divulged their most/least favorite aspects of their jobs. The campers were intrigued by the fact that many of us have had “turning points” that have resulted in the refocusing of career paths. For me in particular, my transitions have been from research scientist to clinical laboratory scientific director to PJGH program director. When describing the last transition, I was really able to convey how my journey has led me to a remarkable endpoint where I am able combine my scientific background with the service of the Jewish community.
Finally, during the camp’s self-study sessions, the campers were guided through current newspaper articles that were a little more controversial in nature—addressing questions such as should healthy adults (or even healthy babies!) undergo whole genome sequencing, or should all Ashkenazi Jewish individuals be tested for the common BRCA mutations. And, for night activity (okay, it was really homework), the campers were encouraged to visit selected websites including our very own online learning platform, and also were provided with some on-theme book and movie recommendations.
And the experimental result and conclusions are already in. In the campers’ anonymous post-camp evaluations, camp was deemed a big hit! One camper even remarked “it made me realize how much awareness needs to be raised, and how much I want to be involved with genetics in the future.”
I am looking forward to a reunion with season 1 campers, and to planning for season 2!
P.S. And yes, we most definitely had s’mores. But there were no tents and it wasn’t a sleepover camp (although one camper remarked that next time we run a bootcamp, it should be longer than 3 days!)
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.