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The PJGH goes camping

camp pjgh banner

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!)


Who’s Who in Genetics

When I was a student at Stern College and I was considering a career in the health sciences, I did not know where to start.  It seemed like all my friends who were biology majors knew what they wanted to do, but none of their choices excited me. And then one day in my junior year, I was introduced to Dr. Harry Ostrer who set me up with a genetic counselor at NYU Cancer Institute. I spent a few days shadowing her and I knew this was the job for me.

I was lucky enough to get in the game while I was still in undergrad, but two of my colleagues have told me that they would have considered genetic counseling as a career had they known about it when they were first starting their careers.  So I compiled a list of current careers in genetics that I wish I had known about when I was in college:

Genetic Counselors (Masters degree) – Genetic counselors identify the risk for their patients and/or their relatives to have genetic diseases. When a particular disease is suspected, the counselor will educate the patient about the symptoms, management, inheritance, available testing, and prevention of the disease, if that is an option. Genetic counselors can be clinical or they can conduct research. Clinical genetic counselors work in reproductive, cancer, pediatric, or adult genetics clinics, and also in laboratories. Research genetic counselors are usually part of a team, and they are involved in conducting clinical or scientific research about technologies or trends in genetics.

Medical Geneticists (Medical degree) – Medical Geneticists usually have trained as OB/GYNs, internists or pediatricians, and also have completed specialty training in medical genetics. Reproductive medical geneticists deal with pregnant women who are at risk for their fetuses to have genetic diseases, and do procedures such as chorionic villus sampling (CVS) or amniocentesis. Adult medicine and pediatric geneticists evaluate individuals who are suspected to have genetic diseases via detailed physical exams and by ordering appropriate testing.

PhD Geneticists– PhD geneticists can work on the clinical and/or the research sides of genetics. On the clinical side, these geneticists may interpret the results of genetic tests or develop new tests. On the research side, these geneticists spend their time looking for the genetic basis of specific diseases, with the hope of opening up new diagnostic and therapeutic options.

Bioinformaticists- This is an up-and-coming field in genetics. Bioinformaticists hold PhD degrees in the field of bioinformatics, which is the use of computers to handle biological information. Bioinformatics has various applications in science, specifically in the field of genetics.

As you can see, within each career there is room for specializing. When I give advice to interested students, I encourage them to spend a few days shadowing those people who do what you might want to do. You just may be inspired!

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