Written by John Chadwick | SAS Senior Writer
Five schools in the Northeast address lack of diversity together
Since its inception in 2017, the Rutgers Genetic Counseling Master’s Program has been preparing students for careers in one of the nation’s fastest-growing healthcare professions, securing 100 percent employment for its graduates.
Now the program has joined with others in the Northeast to confront a major challenge in the field: a lack of diversity.
A consortium of five genetic counseling master’s programs has received a multi-million-dollar grant that will support 40 students from underrepresented groups over the next five years. In addition to Rutgers, the participating schools include the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, the Boston University School of Medicine, Sarah Lawrence College, and the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
“We’re thrilled to participate in a project of this magnitude with the goal of improving the diversity of our profession,” says Jessica Rispoli, the director of the Rutgers program, which is housed in the Department of Genetics, School of Arts and Sciences. “Joining this consortium of renowned genetic counseling programs serves notice of Rutgers’ institutional commitment to these issues and reflects the diversity of our state and student population.”
The $9.5 million Alliance to Increase Diversity in Genetic Counseling grant is being led by the Perelman School of Medicine’s Master of Science in Genetic Counseling Program and funded through The Warren Alpert Foundation.
“Supporting innovative organizations dedicated to understanding and curing disease through groundbreaking research, scholarship, and service is why we are delighted to award Rutgers with this generous grant,” August Schiesser, the foundation’s executive director said in a statement.
The grant will fund tuition and cost of living stipends for 40 students enrolling in genetic counseling master’s programs at the five schools. Rutgers, for example, will get two additional students every year, increasing its typical cohort from 10 to 12.
Genetic counselors work with patients who want to know how inherited diseases and conditions might affect them or their families. They explain test results, assess risk, and guide patients through medical decisions. They typically work in prenatal, pediatric, and oncology settings, and, increasingly, in cardiovascular and neurological treatment, and in a range of industry roles.
The number of genetic counseling jobs is projected to grow 26 percent over the next eight years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. One reason for the growth is that the field has expanded beyond hospital settings, says Christy Seymour, assistant director of the Rutgers program.
“Genetic counselors have increasingly been playing integral roles in laboratories, health insurance companies, and patient advocacy groups to name a few,” Seymour says.
Accordingly, Rutgers has begun incorporating non-hospital based rotations to equip students for the changing landscape of the profession.
Despite its growth, the field is overwhelming white and female, with nine out of every 10 identifying as white, according to a survey in a 2019 report by the National Society of Genetic Counselors. Students in the Rutgers program tend to be more diverse than the average, with roughly 4 in 10 members of the current student population identifying as members of underrepresented groups.
Rispoli says the grant will help on several levels, fostering a more diverse student population in the program, and ultimately generating a more diverse profession that’s better positioned to help underserved communities.
“Having a diverse healthcare workforce is critical for the future of public health,” Rispoli says. “We believe every patient should have access to a genetic counselor who they can relate to and feel comfortable with and who understands their community.”
The Rutgers program, the first in New Jersey, fosters unique across-the-university collaboration with Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS) as students learn from the clinical team and faculty at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey.
“The vision was always about creating a program that would benefit from the integration of RBHS,” Rispoli says. “And that is really what makes our program so successful.”
Graduates have landed jobs in locations that include California, Salt Lake City, Boston, Washington, D.C., and New Jersey.
Rispoli says the grant will also facilitate increased collaboration between the five schools on issues such as recruitment strategies and developing curriculum with a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“The grant makes our program better in many ways,” Rispoli says. “Our students benefit from having a more diverse cohort that they go to school with. And we all benefit from the collaboration and connection with other programs.”