First VP&S Genetic Counseling Students Graduate
On May 18, the first 11 students to complete the Genetic Counseling Graduate Program of the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons celebrated their master’s degrees at a graduation ceremony. The two-year, accredited program launched in Fall 2019 to train students in clinical genetics, counseling, communication, genomic medicine, precision medicine, and the social implications of these advancing technologies.
“We could never have anticipated launching a new graduate program in the same year we experienced a global pandemic that demanded changes in just about every aspect of our lives, including how we teach and learn,” says Amanda Bergner, director of the graduate program. “These students were continually confronted with the need to stretch beyond what was familiar into the unknown. Their remarkable resilience during this time will be a defining feature of their professional practice and a continuing inspiration to us all.”
The graduation ceremony was a small, personalized event that took place in the Vagelos Education Center. Safety precautions were taken to ensure students and faculty maintained physical distance with respect for University guidelines in the ongoing COVID pandemic. Altovise Ewing, PhD, Genomic Health Equity Scientist at Genentech, was the keynote speaker.
For members of the Class of 2021, their two years in the program looked completely different from what they pictured at the outset.
“I cannot say that I would have chosen to be a student during the pandemic, yet I also feel incredibly lucky to have been one,” says Bree Martin, MS’21, who graduated among the Class of 2021. “Thanks to the amazing job our faculty did at transitioning to telemedicine, I don’t feel I missed out on that much clinic experience. During the pandemic, the genetic counseling field has largely transitioned to telemedicine, which has been important for increasing access to genetic counseling. I have as much experience in telemedicine as most experienced genetic counselors, which makes me more confident entering the field.”
Despite the pandemic’s challenges, Martin made the most of her time as a student. She received a CUIMC Precision Medicine: Ethics, Politics and Culture fellowship, which inspired her to study health disparities in genetics. Her research found that pediatric epilepsy patients with ancestries underrepresented in biomedical research had significantly higher rates of uncertain genetic results than those historically represented in biomedical research.
Fellow graduate Gauri Anand, MS’21, also sees the silver lining in her pandemic graduate school experiences.
“During my second year, I was able to work as an academic support person for one of the first-year genetic counseling classes,” says Anand. “This position helped me realize my interest in genetics education, which I plan to integrate and prioritize in my career as a genetic counselor.”
Anand's new job as a pediatric/general genetic counselor with a faculty appointment at Boston University fits the interests she nurtured at Columbia.