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Master of Genetic Counseling program debuts inaugural class

Aug. 22, 2019, 9:20 AM

Martha Dudek, left, with new Master of Genetic Counseling students (front row, from left) Gianna Petrelli, Carly Smith, Alexa De la Vega, (back row, from left) Erin Griffin, Emma Metz and Lucas Richter.
Martha Dudek, left, with new Master of Genetic Counseling students (front row, from left) Gianna Petrelli, Carly Smith, Alexa De la Vega, (back row, from left) Erin Griffin, Emma Metz and Lucas Richter. (photo by Anne Rayner)

by Nancy Humphrey

Vanderbilt University School of Medicine has welcomed its first class of students seeking a Master of Genetic Counseling (MGC) degree, one of the fastest growing health professions in the country. Classes began on Wednesday.

Vanderbilt’s program, developed and taught by genetic counselors in collaboration with the interprofessional faculty at Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt University Medical Center, is built on a foundation of medical education excellence, broad clinical expertise and leadership in genetics research, said its director Martha Dudek, MS, LCGC, assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology. It’s the only training program of its kind in the state and one of a handful in the Southeast.

There are six students in the inaugural group: Alexa De la Vega of Dallas; Erin Griffin of San Diego; Emma Metz of Springfield, Missouri; Gianna Petrelli of Palos Park, Illinois; Lucas Richter of New York City and Carly Smith of Milledgeville, Georgia. The 60-credit-hour degree consists of five consecutive semesters and will take 21 months to complete.

The students will be focused in the classroom for the first semester and will begin their practicum experience in the spring with 10 five-week rotations in prenatal, cancer, pediatrics, etc.

“We had 112 applicants for the six positions,” Dudek said. “There’s a high demand nationally and also locally for genetic counseling services. The field is growing rapidly, with 29% growth anticipated over 10 years, according to the Bureau of Labor, when the average growth for medical professionals is about 12%. There are multiple job opportunities for each graduate,” she said.

The program will be housed in the Vanderbilt Genetics Institute, directed by Nancy Cox, PhD, professor of Medicine, who holds the Mary Phillips Edmonds Gray Chair.

The program’s medical director is Rizwan Hamid, MD, PhD, chief of Genetic Medicine and Genomic Medicine and Dorothy O. Wells Professor of Pediatrics and Cancer Biology. Jill Slamon, MA, LCGC, senior associate in Obstetrics and Gynecology, is the program’s assistant director.

Dudek said the program fits well with the institution’s mission to continue to be a leader in personalized medicine and genetics.

“Vanderbilt is a perfect setting to support the program with the Vanderbilt Genetics Institute and our research and personalized medicine focus,” she said.

VUMC is an example of how the demand for licensed genetic counselors has increased, Dudek said. This year eight new genetic counselors have joined the 12 currently on faculty at the Medical Center — two in obstetrics and gynecology, four in pediatrics and two in medicine.

“We are increasing access to genetic counseling services across the institution to meet the growing needs of patients and providers. There’s a growing need for providers who know not only what the most appropriate testing is to order for patients, but also how to interpret those results and convey the results to patients and families,” she said.

There are more than 5,000 certified genetic counselors in the U.S. and Canada. Currently, there are fewer than 50 accredited training programs. About 400 individuals graduate from an accredited program each year and are eligible to sit for the national board exam.

“The job market is robust. A recent survey of graduates indicated 100 percent employment rate with a majority (70%) accepting positions one to three months prior to graduation,” Dudek said.

Vanderbilt’s MGC program will admit six more students next year, with the goal to grow the program to 10 students per class. “We stand on a firm foundation as we begin,” Dudek said.

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