Kristen Koprowski, 22, can’t say for certain whether it was her experience in crisis counseling, her semester shadowing a genetic counselor, or the self-confidence she felt after working at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School that gave her the edge she needed.
But she is certain that if she had not had the opportunity to enroll in a unique undergraduate Genetic Counseling Certificate Program at Rutgers, she would not be attending graduate school this fall.
“The hands-on involvement made such a big difference,” said Koprowski, a resident of Hillsborough, who graduated from Rutgers School of Biological and Environmental Sciences in May with a degree in genetics, a certificate in genetic counseling, and as the only undergraduate fresh out of college to secure a seat in the genetic counseling graduate program at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania. "I think it gave me the real-life learning experience that many other students just don’t have when they graduate.”
The 15-credit Rutgers Genetic Counseling Certificate program – one of the only undergraduate genetic counseling certificate programs in the United States – is offered to a select number of genetics majors who want to enroll in a master’s-level program in genetic counseling after they graduate.
Program Director Gary Heiman says the goal is to provide students with guidance, coursework, and clinical experience that will help them earn one of the coveted graduate school spots after receiving an undergraduate degree. In most cases, Heiman says, master's level genetic counseling programs do not admit undergraduate students, encouraging them to experience life before entering a graduate program.
“It is extremely competitive to get into graduate school, and many times students are told to go out and get real life experience before they apply,” said Heiman, an assistant professor in the Department of Genetics, in the School of Arts and Sciences, who is trained as a genetic counselor and as an epidemiologist. “I wanted to create a program that would provide students the experience and training they need to be noticed and selected.”
According to the National Society of Genetic Counselors, there are 32 graduate schools in the United States offering degrees in genetic counseling, a rapidly expanding profession of health care experts who provide information and support to individuals and their families who may have a genetic disorder or be at risk.
Boston University is one such school. Mary Ann Campion, director of the Boston University School of Medicine Genetic Counseling Program, says her program traditionally receives between 120 and 150 graduate school applicants competing for seven available seats.
“You want students that feel empowered to make hard decisions in the moment,” says Campion, who offered a student of Heiman’s admission to the Boston University program. “A program like this gives students the ability to get some of that experience that is important as an undergraduate.”
In addition to taking coursework in research statistics, psychology, and bioethics, Rutgers students spend a semester at the genetics clinic at either Robert Wood Johnson-UMDNJ or Saint Peter’s University Hospital in New Brunswick one day each week on a clinical rotation. During this time, they observe counseling sessions and the interaction between the genetic counselor and the patient, attend meetings where the cases are discussed, and at the end of the semester give a presentation to the hospital’s genetics department.
The students are also required to volunteer for one-year at a crisis hotline. The reason: It teaches vital listening skills to those who will be responsible for helping people adapt to the psychological impact of genetics conditions.
“The crisis hotline gives students the training and experience in talking with people who are in a crisis situation, what to say, what not to say,” Heiman said. “This is critical for those who want to become genetic counselors.”
What is unique about the Rutgers program, say genetic counselors, is that it provides undergraduates a wide experience in the field that is usually not possible until graduate school.
“A program like this is invaluable for students,” said Michele Horner, a genetic counselor at the Institute for Genetic Medicine at Saint Peter’s. “It gives them the opportunity to find out before they go to graduate school whether the profession is right for them.”
That is exactly how genetics major Francesca Tubito, a senior in the certificate program from East Hanover, who recently finished her rotation at Robert Wood Johnson this summer, sees it.
“I was not certain that I would like this when I started,” said Tubito, who will graduate from Rutgers in May. “But I found out that I really do want to do this as a career, so the feeling of uneasiness is over.”