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Research fellowship for genetic counselors established at Vanderbilt

Oct. 3, 2023, 9:40 AM

Nancy Cox, PhD

by Bill Snyder

Vanderbilt University School of Medicine has received a five-year, $1.3 million federal grant to establish a research fellowship for genetic counselors that will prepare them to contribute more fully to the advancement of personalized medicine.

Nancy Cox, PhD, who directs the Vanderbilt Genetics Institute and the Division of Genetic Medicine, and Martha Dudek, MS CGC, director of the Vanderbilt Master of Genetic Counseling program, are co-principal investigators of the grant from the National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health.

Martha Dudek, MS, CGC

During its initial five years, the Fellowship in Genomics Outcomes Research will support up to seven genetic counselor “scholars” who will commit half of their time to research over a two-year period.

Each scholar will develop an individualized research plan with the help of leaders in genomic and personalized medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and by utilizing resources including BioVU, VUMC’s massive biospecimen repository, and the Vanderbilt Undiagnosed Diseases Program.

The long-term goal of the fellowship is to train investigators who will collaborate in research beyond the clinical spaces where genetic counselors typically contribute, said Dudek, who has helped advance the practice and status of genetic counseling in Tennessee since she arrived at Vanderbilt in 2001.

Genetic counselors are master-degree level professionals who have specialized training in medical genetics. Licensed in 33 states, they educate patients, families and health care providers about the risks and implications of inheriting genetic disorders.

Dudek, assistant professor and director of Obstetrical Genetic Counseling in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at VUMC, led the effort to license genetic counselors in Tennessee. She was the first clinical genetic counselor licensed by the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners in 2008.

Active in medical genetics education and mentoring, Dudek also is founding director of the state’s first Master of Genetic Counseling program, which opened at Vanderbilt in 2019. Several of the program’s 19 graduates have presented their research at national and international meetings and published their work in professional journals.

Earlier this year, the Warren Alpert Foundation of Providence, Rhode Island, committed $9.7 million to establish a Career Ladder Education Program for Genetic Counseling at the University of Pennsylvania in collaboration with four other institutions, including Vanderbilt.

For genetic counselors at Vanderbilt, the career ladder program will provide protected time and resources, enabling them to expand their research training with mentorship from faculty at the Vanderbilt Genetics Institute, Dudek said.

Genetic medicine is expanding rapidly, both in terms of the volume of new genetic tests that are being developed and the number of people receiving them, said Cox, the Mary Phillips Edmonds Gray Professor of Medicine at VUMC.

The Fellowship in Genomics Outcomes Research will prepare genetic counselors for the increasingly important role they will play in developing and applying recent discoveries for the benefit of patients and their families, she said.

The fellowship is supported by NIH grant 1R25HG012915.

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