Author Archives: Olivia

A New Meaning for Pink & Blue ((BY OLIVIA))

Looking for something to do this Sunday? A new documentary called Pink&Blue: Colors of Hereditary Cancer will be showing across the country this weekend. If you are interested in inherited cancer syndromes and the patient experience  you should definitely check this out.  This film aims to redefine inherited breast cancer as a problem that affects women AND men  (a constant soapbox issue for yours truly).  The knowledge that BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations  can affect males by increasing the risk for certain cancers (namely male breast and prostate) is an important counseling point for genetic counselors.  Check out the trailer below and click here to see if there is a movie screening near you this weekend! Hopefully the showings will continue into next year.


Mid-Interview Soul Searching ((by Olivia))

By now, interview season for genetic counseling programs is in full swing.   Many of you  likely have one interview under your belt (if not, then it’s coming up shortly; as if you needed reminding!). This time of year can give a new meaning to “March Madness,” so here are some tips from myself and the other M&G bloggers to help you stay sane and on your game:

Pre-Interview Prep

GC program interview questions can cover a wide range of topics, including general genetics, the genetic counseling profession, legal and ethical dilemmas in genetics/genetic counseling, current events in genetics, as well as some of the more typical questions that help interviewers learn about you and your personality.  Each program puts their own unique twist on the interview process, so anticipate that there may be surprises both in type of questions as well as the way interviews are conducted.  Thinking on your feet is good practice for being a real genetic counselor!

So how do you prepare?

1. Practice, practice, practice. As Jade C. puts it “professionals practice for interviews.” And she is SO right.  In no way is it nerdy, lame, or overkill to work through your answers to interview questions, even if that means writing out word-for-word responses.  Have a friend ask you random questions or talk to yourself in the mirror; this type of “out loud” practice can help ensure clarity when you respond, with less distracting “um’s” and “likes.” Having solid responses to common questions will also help calm your nerves when the big day arrives, because you’ll feel ready and confident.

2. Know how to share your story – concisely. The “elevator speech” is a 1 minute spiel that everyone should have up their sleeve as a way to introduce themselves and break the ice on interview day. Carla suggests working in your hometown, educational background, relevant experience, accomplishments, and finish with hobbies or personal interests.  Think about what drew you into the genetic counseling career and find a unique way to answer this question that will almost certainly be asked. Side note: I still use the 1 liner I developed for my GC interviews to answer patients who ask me how I got interested in genetic counseling.

3. Own your strengths & your weaknesses. While it’s important to play up your strongest assets and proudest moments on your resume, programs will also be on the look out for areas of past difficulty.  Everyone has a few skeletons in the transcript closet, and I think it’s reasonable to anticipate questions about why those areas were challenging and how you have worked to improve. Keep your answer short and end on a high note: explain how the experience has helped you succeed in a future endeavor. This will show that you understand failure happens, you are mature enough to reflect on the situation, and brave enough to try again!

4. Be kind to yourself. Treat yourself to your favorite things during this time of stress and vulnerability. As the week of/night before your interview approaches, make sure you are doing lots of things that allows your mind to clear and makes your soul smile.  A few suggestions: get good sleep, buy some great music, Jade T. suggests deep breathing or yoga- whatever works for you! On the day of the interview, strike up a conversation with the other interviewees; they are probably just as nervous as you are.  Who knows, you might even make friends (that’s how Jade C. and I met all those years ago)!

Post-Interview Wrap Up

The hard part of the interview process may end once you answer your last question and head back home, but assessing each program is equally important as them assessing you!  It’s best to do this soon after your visit, while the details are still fresh in your memory. How this program mesh with you as an individual and as a student?  Sometimes developing a visual aid to compare and contrast is useful.  You could also develop your own ranking system and make a spreadsheet to keep track. NSGC has a spreadsheet here to get you started (scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page). Carla recommends creating a short list of questions that would influence your decision and pose them to each program during your interview day.

Points to consider:

  • What’s most important to you in a program? Emotional support, innovation, reputation, sense of closeness between faculty and students?
  • Do you have any long-term career goals (work in a university, start a company? specialize?) How does this program fit into that goal?
  • What financial pros/cons are there about this program? What financial aid exists for GC grad students (like scholarships)?
  • Which program did you like best overall and why?
  • Still have final questions? Most programs have a current students or alumni that you can ask about day-to-day campus life and area living.  Send the program an email to ask; it will show your interest and give you a chance to thank them after your interview.
  • Don’t be afraid to listen to your gut instinct!

Take home Message: it’s important to make the effort to prepare before your interview, organize your thoughts and emotions after,  and to take time for yourself in between so you can continue to be your most confident, happy self during the interview mania.  Good luck!

Guest Post: Applying and Interviewing Advice from the Trenches

Hello potential genetic counseling students!

My name’s Austin and I am currently a first year genetic counseling student. Olivia asked me to share some information and tips on the process of applying and interviewing at graduate programs, so I’ve spent the last few days trying to remember what was helpful to me during a process that feels like it occurred so long ago (time flies when you’re having fun, as they say).

The first thing to think about is where to apply. There aren’t an overwhelming number of programs, but some important things to consider and do some research on are: the program “character” or philosophy, the school itself, and the geographical location. It can be difficult to find a program that perfectly fits all three of these criteria, but there are usually quite a few that get close enough to consider. I would also encourage applicants to apply to at least three schools, even if you have a clear-cut front-runner that you are interested in. The interview process is a great way to get a better feel for the programs that weren’t necessarily your top choice, and extra interview practice never hurt anyone.

But before we get to interviews, there’s the fun and exciting application process. Different programs have different requirements, so it’s important to become familiar with what they are asking for, and I would say you can never start too early on these. This is your first impression to a school and you want to put your best foot forward, so make sure to be concise while still communicating what you want them to know about you. Most schools have a written autobiography portion of the application, and you really want to make sure to highlight things about yourself here that will set you apart from others and show that you will be a stellar genetic counselor (extracurricular or volunteer activities, participation in advocacy programs, etc.). I would strongly recommend having several people (preferably with excellent grammar and editing skills, or people who have previously applied to graduate school) take a look over your written materials and talk with them about any feedback they have for you. Don’t feel like you have to incorporate ever piece of feedback you get – these documents represent you and you want to feel comfortable with what you’re submitting.

 Next Step: the Interview! Each school has different qualities that they are specifically looking for that they feel would best fit their program and these factor into choosing who they want to meet in person. Interviews can be exciting and nerve-racking but I think it’s important to remember that not only are they interviewing you, but you are also interviewing them. Try not to be nervous (impossible task for most I know, myself included), but remember that these interviews mean that they like what they know about you so far and are looking to get to know more. Come prepared with background knowledge about the school and the program and be ready to ask any questions that you have – interviewers LOVE questions (I’d definitely put more emphasis on quality rather than quantity here).

My technique was to try to anticipate what kind of questions were going to be asked and run through mock interviews with friends. Some basics you can pretty much count on are:

  • Why do you want to be a genetic counselor?
  • What about this program interests you?
  • What are some characteristics that you have that you feel will make you a good genetic counselor?

There will of course be many more questions than those three, but I can’t spoil ALL of the fun for you. I find, from my own experience and talking with my classmates, if you have a good understanding of and have really thought through these three major questions, all of the other questions they throw at you will be much easier to answer. Interviews are also a great time to talk about your experiences shadowing a genetic counselor (which I think all programs require, but even if they don’t, should be something you’re doing). I think it shows that you have a clear understanding of how the profession operates, and that you know what you’re getting yourself into.

Finally, what happens if you either don’t get an interview, or you don’t get in? It can be kind of disheartening, but it’s important to know that a lot of people need to apply to graduate programs more than once before they get accepted. Genetic counseling is a very competitive field, and there aren’t that many programs (and a lot of those programs only accept a handful of students). If you didn’t get an interview, I would suggest reaching out to the contact person (usually the program director) and letting them know that you are still very interested in genetic counseling and in their program, and ask what you can do to make your application stronger for next year.

The same goes for if you had an interview but didn’t get in – I would contact the interviewers (either by email or phone), thank them for the opportunity to meet with them, express that you are still very interested in their program and ask what you can work on to strengthen your application for the next cycle of admissions. This will show them that not only are you mature enough to accept rejection (which we all have to do at some point), but also that you are undeterred in your pursuit of genetic counseling as a career.

Well folks, it’s been great to have the opportunity to share what I have learned through the process of applying and interviewing to genetic counseling graduate programs with you. I hope you all find at least some of what I was able to pass on to be helpful.

Best of luck and keep your chin up!


Highlights from New Zealand ((By Olivia))

A shell from Piha Beach that is shaped like a koru, which symbolizes new life, growth, strength, and peace.

Hello blogosphere! As Jade alerted you in her last post, our summer clinical fun has ended and the reality of the semester ahead is rushing towards us like a mack truck. I touched down a few days ago and am finally starting to get back in synch with the time zone thanks to lots of sunshine and Vitamin B12/C.

I spent my 24 hours of travel time (8 of which were in LAX…I hate layovers!!) pondering my summer experience and trying to figure out a plan of attack for this year. I am in disbelief that I am a second year student already! As a first year, I felt that the second years were demi-gods of genetics counseling. I certainly don’t feel like I have divine powers now that I’ve completed my summer placement but what I do have is confidence.  I can really see myself doing genetic counseling, sitting down and discussing a wide range of conditions to patients from a spectrum of situations, because I’ve had practice doing it all summer. You hear it all the time but it’s really true- practice, practice, practice! It was difficult to keep pushing and challenging myself throughout the course of my rotation but I am happy that I did- it helped me get so much more out of the experience and I even surprised myself.

The NZ genetics service gave me many opportunities to practice genetic counseling but also to expand my understanding about how a genetics clinic works in another country.  It was challenging at first to understand the healthcare system and where the genetics service fits in, but once I got the hang of it, I thought it there was some really great aspects to it. For example, all genetic testing is covered by the national healthcare system, so it’s free of cost to patients.  Another cool thing about the service is that it’s national, making it easier for the counselors and geneticists who work at the three regional offices to collaborate on cases and share information, especially when families are scattered throughout the country. This made confirmations of diseases/diagnoses in family members a little bit easier, although detective work and hunting for medical information is still a large part of the counselor’s job in NZ.

The country has a population of 4 million people, so there aren’t as many GCs as there are in the USA…by a long shot, but they are able to cover the needs of the population well, in my opinion. The regional services hold outreach clinics in various areas within their area to ensure that no citizen has to travel more than 2 hours to reach a genetics clinic. Overall, the cases that the GCs see are predominantly cancer-related, followed by preconceptual cases, and then everything in between. I found that pediatric cases were almost exclusively seen my geneticists and that prenatal cases (ie abnormal serum screen, increased risk for Down Syndrome) were seen by perinatal specialists, usually with no genetic counselor involvement.

One of the most important things I learned is that some things are universal. For the GCs in NZ, there was always more work that needed to be done outside of clinic (story of GCs life!), they were passionate about the field and about the care of their patients, and they were wonderful supervisors to their American student!

What’s Up Down Under ((By OLIVIA))

Sunrise at Waiatarua, where I’m currently staying.

I can’t promise that I won’t use anymore puns about the Southern Hemisphere while I’m here! As Jade mentioned in her last post I am doing my summer clinical placement at hospitals in New Zealand. I first went to NZ in 2009 on a ‘working holiday’ for a year after I graduated from undergrad- you can read about those adventures here if you are so inclined. I’ve been lucky enough to network with several interesting and extremely helpful people in the Kiwi genetics community and it has been through them that this opportunity became reality! I’m most looking forward to learning about the medical system, cultural differences, and how a smaller genetics service manages to take care of the country’s needs.

I don’t start for a couple of weeks so Ive been resting up, adjusting to the time change, winterizing, prepping my thesis proposal (EEEK!) and catching up with friends. I was watching TV the other day and found this wonderful show called Attitude that I just had to share. It features people with various disABILITIES and their challenges and successes. By now you know how much I love this learning about people’s experiences from their perspective and this show is no exception. I especially love the name! Not sure if the episodes will play in the US, but I hope so. Now that it’s summer, you can spend as much time watching these without feeling guilty!

Show & Tell ((By Olivia))

Olivia here. Contrary to what it seems, I do still exist! Here’s a snippet of what I’ve been up to during my hiatus.

1. Finished the book The Boy in the Moon by Ian Brown

I heard about this book I believe from NPR (check out this episode of Fresh Air interviewing the author) last summer and purchased a digital version of the book to read on the subway. When I began reading it waaaay back in August (Thompson & Thompson took priority somewhere during that time!), I had had no exposure to life with a severely disabled child and I thought this might provide in-depth insight. Brown’s book chronicles his experience raising his son, the affects it has had on his family, and his personal desire to find meaning and reason in his son’s existence. The book expands to a greater exploration into the lives of the disabled, families like Brown’s who have succeeded and struggled to provide for their children, and the people who have advocated for appreciation, acceptance, and basic rights for the severely disabled.

Check out this excerpt from the NYTimes.

2. Followed blogged adventures of international genetic counseling in Guatemala

I didn’t go anywhere exotic this spring break, so I’ve been living vicariously through the GenetAssist Team Blog as they explore this beautiful country, learn honored cultural beliefs, and educate midwives, women, and teens about basic genetics and prenatal care. Formed in 2011, GenetAssist Team consists of inspired students, alumni, and their program director who hope to expand the access to genetic counseling services to all nations.

3. Listened to Patient Voices for a personal perspectives on life and living

WARNING: This is addicting and may detract from studying (nerd alert!) But, it is a form of studying, no?

Patient Voices is a collection of recordings and images from patients who have health problems, be they genetic, chronic, psychological, that have affected their lives for better or for worse. They can make you laugh and cry in the same session and I love that many different people are featured. It shows the diversity of people who can be affected, as well as the variability of symptoms within each disorder.

4. Playtime at Gigi’s Playhouse NYC

I went with a classmate earlier this week to have pizza and playtime with the folks at Gigi’s Playhouse in Harlem, which is a nonprofit play and meeting space for families, siblings, and children with Down Syndrome. Before going, I checked out their site and thought that the concept was fantastic; why aren’t there more places like this out there?! It seemed like a place of common ground where both the parents and the kiddos can relax and have fun. The NYC location is kind of new, but I’m sure that their base will grow as the word spreads about the support and friendship that’s been found at Gigi’s Playhouse NYC!

You & the Jones Apply to Graduate School ((By Olivia))

If you’re considering applying to genetic counseling or other professional programs this year, you’re probably well into to getting your application components ready, right? Hint, hint- deadlines are right around the corner!

Your To Do List might look something like this:

  1. Pick schools to apply to/complete application forms
  2. Rank appropriately, …re-rank
  3. Recruit three letters of recommendation
  4. Request copies GRE scores
  5.  Stare down the intimidating personal statement(s), opinion piece(s), and perhaps an autobiography
  6. Edit and repeat… 5x

Let’s face it, getting the materials and motivation to put an application together is difficult and, as Jade mentioned in one of our flagship posts, can seem like a full-time job. You want to showcase your originality, so you can shine amongst the other prospective students out there,  AKA the Jones.

One way to stand apart from the crowd is to become familiar with all that is happening in your field of interest or the medical field at large & then weave it into your application. Even though I’m surrounded by all things genetic counseling as a student, I still can miss whats happening out there in the field overall. Here are a few quick ways that I use to find out what are the hot topics in Genetic Counseling.

Email subscriptions to newspapers and genetics-relevant blogs help keep me up to date with the oft changing world of genetics. For example, the Genetic Alliance has an oh-so-convenient weekly policy newsletter, as well as other specific updates, that are interesting  and don’t crowd your Inbox. Even better, each article is summarized in a healthy paragraph that isn’t exhausting. A link to the original article is always included if you are keen to see the full work and they archive articles from each week just to be extra awesome.

I don’t personally use Twitter too much, unless I’m hunting food trucks in NYC, but I’m starting to appreciate the quick genetics updates the follow accounts provide. Informed DNA‘s (formerly AccessDNA/Informed Health Decisions) co-founder Jordanna Joaquina runs a mini blog of Twitter digests called The Family Genes  to highlight happenings in our world of genetics/genomics. I realize there hasn’t been a new update in a while but I still found the topics interesting. We’re all Google savvy out there so use those skills to follow-up if something sparks your fancy. Just last week, The DNA Exchange featured a post by guest blogger/current GC student, Justin, who happens to run a Twitter of his own under geneharbinger, which focuses on of-the-moment articles about genetic counseling and the world of medical genetics- at a regularly updated pace.

Stumbling around on these (and other) websites or Twitter accounts can lead to other interesting links and sites. Do some digging, maybe followed by Googling, and see what you find.  Remember that you don’t have to understand all of the information out there (after all, that is why you want to go to a graduate program- to learn!) but sharing that you have been following what’s new in your field and forming opinions, or even mentioning questions you have shows your motivation, interest, and passion, which is a top selling point for you as an applicant.

Now go get ’em Tiger!

Study distractions: Wish I was hanging ten with Mauli Ola ((By Olivia))

I really should be studying Embryology right now, but I wanted to share the efforts of  this awesome organization down in Hawaii called Mauli Ola –” breath of life”– that crept into my consciousness while studying this weekend.

A group of pro-surfers has teamed up with Ambry Genetics to host surfing camps and workshops for kids who have Cystic Fibrosis. The camps are a great way for the kids to get out and enjoy nature, meet other kids with CF, and, according to their website, experience a natural treatment from the ocean water’s saline. Sounds like an interesting concept to me and world’s more fun than a trip to the hospital. Carly’s blog about being a teen with CF was featured on the site; check it out for real-talk insight into living with CF.

It would be so cool to get to go to one of their events someday! Now if only I had a reason to go to Hawaii… hint, hint NSGC planning committee!



Gaining Patient Insight: The Scar Project & Patient Blogs ((By Olivia))

Disclaimer: The Scar Project contains female upper body nudity…(just thought you should know!)

The wonderful blog The Improvised Life that I frequently obsess over had the most moving post last week about a photo collection of women who bear (bare?) the scars left behind from having breast cancer called The Scar Project.

In a word: WOW.

These women exude raw strength.  It also beautifully illustrates how surviving the unknown territory of illness can leave you feeling, on the contrary, quite vulnerable. I felt myself tearing up at the honesty in these images.

This collection allowed a glimpse into the lives of these women but I wish I could learn more! I feel that listening, or in this case observing, the experiences of patients truly broadens my perspective and enables me, as future health professional, to consider the emotions and reactions that a person may have after learning important information about their health.

I also like to read patient blogs as another way to learn about the ‘patient perspective.’ Some that I really like are below. I tend to start at the beginning post and work towards the most recent or sometimes search posts for ‘genetic counseling,’ but that’s just me! Feel free to share your faves in the comments section…

Breathing Life into Medical Genetics: Two Films of Merit ((by Olivia))

I’m amazed at how much I have managed to absorb in the last four weeks. Apart from the mounting pile of tests, presentations, and case studies, it feels so good  to have my synapses firing again! Especially when I get to ponder all things genetic counseling all – day – long.

Much of the focus of the coursework has been establishing a base knowledge of features, inheritance patterns, and population frequencies of common genetic conditions. Two that keep coming up again and again are Cystic Fibrosis (CF) and Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). The idea is to apply this information to an individual or couple’s pedigree and calculate the likelihood that either of them, or their child might be affected with the condition in question.

As much as I love genetics, I knew nothing more than a vague, one-liner about many of these disorders and I really do not excel at math. If I could go back in time, I would tell my 7th grade self to pay more attentions to fraction/decimal conversions and know those common denominators!

This is why I was excited for the opportunity to view two separate films about three truly inspiring individuals living with genetic conditions.  The first is The Power of Two– a documentary about two Japanese-American women (Ana and Isa) who are identical twins living with CF, which is quite rare in Asian populations. The film was premiering as part of DocuWeeks in NYC, so my classmates and I made an evening out of it and were even able to hear the director speak about the making of the film at the end.

The second film,  Darius Goes West, was part of our orientation week. The film follows a teenager with DMD (Darius) and his friends on their quest from Georgia to California to be featured on MTV’s Pimp My Ride, all the while spreading the word about DMD and accessibility issues for wheelchair users. Darius has a playful personality (complete with rapping ability) and their group pulls plenty of teenage guy antics that makes this feel more like a reality TV than a documentary.

Being able to recall the factual components of these conditions is undoubtedly important, but for our profession, familiarity with the human factor holds equal weight. Both Darius and the twins are unbelievably upbeat and courageous; I felt so in awe of their outlook on life and everything they have accomplished. Prior to starting school, I had never met anyone with an (obvious) genetic condition, so I found both of these films as an inspiring introduction and education, breathing life into the conditions that make up my coursework.

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