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Internships and job shadowing opportunities in the field of genetic counseling are
rare. Although this medical field has been around since the early 1970s, there are
only 30 master’s programs in the United States training genetic counselors. King University
junior Elizabeth Owens spent three weeks this summer participating in a rare internship
opportunity at Northwestern University’s Center for Genetic Medicine. In addition,
she spent time job shadowing genetic counselors at Northwestern.
Genetic counseling is the counseling of individuals about the statistical probabilities
of inheriting genetic diseases and the nature, diagnosis, and treatment of such diseases.
Northwestern University’s Center for Genetic Medicine supports basic genetics research;
development and utilization of genetically-based diagnostics, therapies, and technologies;
academic education; and public outreach.
“My little brother has hereditary pancreatitis or Slone’s Disease, as do many members
of my extended family,” said Owens. “[Slone’s Disease] is actually named after my
great-grandmother’s side of the family. Approximately 20-30 years ago, a group of
scientists called together as many of the Slone family as possible to collect data.
Only in the past 5-10 years, have scientists been able to discover the exact gene
which causes the disease. This family experience is the reason why I became interested
in pursuing a career in genetic counseling.”
A junior majoring in Biology, with minors in both Psychology and English, Owens spoke
with her faculty advisor, Dr. Han Chuan Ong, dean of the King College of Arts and
Sciences for King University, about her plans to become a genetic counselor. “After
our conversation, Dr. Ong contacted a colleague, who happened to be a genetic counselor
in Chicago, to find out what steps would be best for me to take next. His colleague
suggested applying for the internship with Northwestern’s Center for Genetic Medicine,
and added that I could shadow her for the week prior to the onset of the internship
should I be accepted. This happens to be the only internship program of its kind for
“Elizabeth is a tenacious and goal-oriented student,” said Dr. Ong. “She expressed
to me her desire to shadow a genetics counselor in the Tri-Cities area, but there
were no such opportunities. Instead, Elizabeth was asked to apply to Northwestern's
competitive and prestigious summer internship program. Elizabeth would not settle
for anything less in pursuit of her goal and was adamant about adding a field experience
component to her training. We are proud to have a student like her.”
Approximately 50 students applied for the elite internship program; 16 were accepted,
of which Owens was one.
Since job shadowing is rare in the field of genetic counseling, Northwestern arranged
opportunities for interns to have similar experiences to job shadowing. Interns met
with several families with children who have trisomy disorders. Interns also visited
Misericordia Heart of Mercy in Chicago, a home offering care for more than 600 adults
and children from diverse racial, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds with mild
to profound developmental disabilities, many of whom are also physically challenged.
“Visiting Misericordia was a very emotional but rewarding day,” said Owens. “Seeing
both sides of what a parent might do knowing their child may have a disorder was eye-opening.
No one can tell a parent what do, but there are programs in place to help these families.
During the program, interns were afforded the opportunity to meet with genetic counselors
and participate in discussions on the traditional and clinical roles for genetic counselors,
as well as alternative paths such as lab work in some of the more specialized fields
of genetics. They also learned about genetic counseling programs available across
the U.S. Interns received sage advice on applications for master’s programs in genetics,
and information on potential research projects and thesis development.
“It was great having a faculty advisor who not only had knowledge of genetic counseling
but also was eager to provide assistance. Not all interns had that same experience,”
commented Owens. “I feel this definitely gave me a bit of an edge. Without Dr. Ong’s
support, I would not have been able to arrive early and spend a few days job shadowing
with his colleague, Sarah Jackson, and several of her associates. I was the only participant
afforded this opportunity.”
Owens added, “This experience confirmed that [genetic counseling] is definitely the
career path for me.” Upon graduation from King, Owens plans to enter a master’s program
for genetic counseling.
King University is a Presbyterian, master's-level comprehensive university. Founded in 1867 as King
College, the University offers more than 90 majors, minors, pre-professional degrees
and concentrations in fields such as business, nursing, law, medical and health sciences,
pharmacy, education, and humanities. Graduate programs are offered in business administration,
education, and nursing. A number of research, off-campus learning opportunities,
and travel destinations are also available. King University is a NCAA Division II
and a Conference Carolinas member with 25 varsity athletic teams. For more information
about King University, visit www.king.edu. King University does not discriminate against academically qualified students of
any race, color, national or ethnic origin, sex, age, or disability. King University
is certified by SCHEV to operate locations in Virginia. For more information, contact
the King University office at Southwest Virginia Community College, 309 College Road,
Richlands, VA 24641.