Penn Medicine has been awarded a $9.5 million grant from the Warren Alpert Foundation to continue its efforts to increase diversity in genetic counseling, a field that, despite impressive leaps forward in genetic knowledge, lacks a diverse workforce. The Alliance to Increase Diversity in Genetic Counseling grant will support 40 underrepresented students in five genetic counseling programs in the northeastern U.S. over five years to expand all dimensions of diversity. The Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s master of science in genetic counseling program will lead this effort, joined by participating genetic counseling master’s degree programs at Boston University School of Medicine; Rutgers University, the State University of New Jersey; Sarah Lawrence College; and the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Ten students will be selected yearly to receive full tuition support and a cost of living stipend.
The University of Pennsylvania’s master of science in genetic counseling program (MSGC) and the collaborative programs are committed to increasing diversity and inclusion in the genetic counseling field and encouraging post-graduate training and career advancement opportunities for genetic counselors. Previous philanthropic gifts to the MSGC program have supported a robust summer internship for undergraduates who are underrepresented in genetic counseling, which, in its first year, led to several rising juniors and seniors learning about the field and considering applying to the program. The Class of 2023 is Penn MSGC’s most diverse ever, with 35% of students from underrepresented backgrounds.
“We are honored to receive this grant from the Warren Alpert Foundation to continue to expand diversity and inclusion in genetic counseling while growing the overall genetic counseling workforce,” said Daniel J. Rader, chair of the department of genetics in the Perelman School of Medicine and chief of the divisions of human genetics at Penn and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “The foundation is extraordinarily forward-thinking in making this generous funding available to address a critical need as the implementation of genomic medicine continues to rapidly expand.”
“On the 50th anniversary of genetic counseling being established as a field, we celebrate the first time an alliance of genetic counseling programs has collaborated to increase diversity and inclusion with scholarships, post-graduate training, and career advancements for genetic counselors,” said Kathleen Valverde, program director of the Penn MSGC.
A key rationale for increasing diversity in the genetic counseling workforce is to improve support for patients from underrepresented backgrounds. The field is currently comprised of 95 percent white women. Therefore, underrepresentation of genetic counselors from diverse backgrounds can strain critical dialogue between genetic counselors and patients, whose health outcomes are often improved through interaction with medical professionals they can relate to more personally. Unless genetic counseling becomes more accessible, existing disparities will be exacerbated. Addressing this issue will require integrated strategies, including expanding genetic research, improving genetic literacy, and enhancing access to genetic technologies and genetic counseling among underrepresented populations in a way that avoids stigmatization and other harms.
“Supporting innovative organizations dedicated to understanding and curing disease through groundbreaking research, scholarship, and service is why we are delighted to award Penn with this generous grant from the Warren Alpert Foundation,” said August Schiesser, executive director of the Warren Alpert Foundation. “Recruiting and training underrepresented individuals in genetic counseling will increase the numbers of professionals in the field, leading to an increase in access to community-based genetic education and genetic counseling services delivered by individuals who reflect different populations.”
“The Penn MSGC program leadership brings extensive experience in genetic counseling education and, with this grant, it will expand its reach to diverse students preparing them to be successful professionals who will advance the field of genetic counseling,” said Emma Meagher, a professor of medicine and pharmacology, chief clinical research officer and associate dean of master and certificate programs in the Perelman School of Medicine.
Interested applicants for Penn can visit https://www.med.upenn.edu/geneticcounseling for more information. Penn’s application deadline is January 5, 2022, with deadlines for Boston University School of Medicine, Rutgers University, Sarah Lawrence College, and the University of Maryland School of Medicine ranging across December 2021 and January 2022. Ten students will be selected yearly to receive full tuition support and a cost of living stipend.