The University of Connecticut will offer a Professional Science Masters in Genetic Counseling beginning the 2023-2024 academic year. It will be the first such program at a public university in New England.
“The job market for genetic counselors has historically been favorable. The field has doubled since 2010,” says Program Director Maria Gyure, who has spearheaded the University’s efforts to create the program. “Genetic counseling is the perfect professional marriage between genetics and psychology, and genetic counselors are wearing more hats than ever,” Gyure, who is also an allied health sciences lecturer in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources. They are employed in hospitals, in labs, as educators, as advocates as well as taking on roles within the insurance industry, research, and sales and marketing.
UConn has offered certificate degrees in clinical genetics as well as clinical communication and has many professors and staff with experience in the field working at UConn Health, teaching in Storrs, running the UConn Chromosome Core, and conducting genetics research across the university. But in order to qualify for the board exam which is a necessary part of licensure as a genetic counselor, students must earn a masters degree from a program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling. UConn’s program has achieved accreditation, the first public university in the region to do so.
As a public university, UConn can offer in-state tuition to Connecticut residents in the PSM and New England regional tuition to students from nearby states. And more affordable tuition is only the first benefit of studying for Genetics Counseling PSM at UConn.
“We intend to increase the diversity within the genetic counseling profession. We have been very intentional about increasing access to students from populations that tend to be underrepresented in the profession,” Gyure says. And they’ve designed a holistic admissions process that includes a video essay and a written statement of purpose, as well as the more typical work experience and grades from earlier education.
The two-year program includes clinical rotations from the very beginning, so students immediately begin getting practical experience. Thanks to the program’s partnerships with UConn Health, Connecticut Children’s Medical, and The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, students will have the opportunity to focus on diverse areas of interest, including pediatric, prenatal, cardiovascular, laboratory, and cancer genetic counseling, as well as specialty clinics focusing on genetic diseases such as Huntington’s disease, hemophilia, and osteogenesis imperfecta.
Beginning in the second semester, students will also take part in research to produce a capstone project.
“We’re a genomics institute. The advance in research is what pushes genetics knowledge forward,” and that research happens here at UConn and at its partners in the Institute for Systems Genomics (ISG), says ISG Director Rachel O’Neill.
The Genetics Counseling PSM is housed under the auspices of the ISG and students will have the opportunity to work with many of the 140 faculty members of the institute, and potentially others. The program will be connecting with the National Institutes of Health “All of Us” project, for example, which means genetic counseling students will have opportunities to work on research of global impact.
“Training professionals who can bring this knowledge of our genetic makeup to large swaths of the population is critical” to democratizing genomics, says senior vice provost of academic affairs Jeffrey Shoulson. “UConn can make these opportunities widely accessible. That is something to celebrate.”
“We are proud to be the first public institution in New England to offer this degree,” says Amy Gorin, vice provost for health sciences and interdisciplinary initiatives. “There is a need for genetic counselors in our state and the region and UConn will play a key role in training a workforce skilled at helping individuals and families navigate difficult health decisions.”
The application period for the first year has already closed, but interested potential students are encouraged to explore the “Follow the tree if you want to be a GC” link on the program’s homepage, and then take steps towards becoming a counselor: take a class in genetics, volunteer with people with disabilities, work alongside a counselor, or investigate the career via information on professional organizations’ websites. Applications for the 2024-2025 year open next fall.