Main content
Emory’s genetic counseling training program celebrates 10 years
Lukas Lopez and Alexandra Singleton

Lucas Lopez and Alexandra Singleton are part of the Emory Genetic Counseling Training Program, which celebrates its ten-year anniversary this year.

This year marks the ten-year anniversary of the founding of the Emory Genetic Counseling Training Program, the only one in Georgia and one of fewer than 60 programs in North America.

Founded by professor Cecelia Bellcross, the Emory Genetic Counseling Training program is a full-time, 21-month program that includes didactic coursework, clinical rotations and a research project. Since the first class was admitted in 2012, 91 genetic counselors have graduated.

Lucas Lopez and Alexandra Singleton are currently in the program.

Lopez decided to be a genetic counselor during his sophomore year of college. He wanted a career that harnessed his enthusiasm for both science and interacting with others but felt like he didn’t want to become a physician. Lopez was attending a small college in Abilene, Texas — and not many people there could tell him what genetic counseling consisted of, career-wise.

Similarly, as an undergraduate at Duke, Singleton cycled through several career options before deciding on genetic counseling.

As there are fewer than 6,000 genetic counselors (GCs) in the United States, it is not uncommon for prospective students to learn about the career during their undergraduate years or even after they started a different career. However, once prospective students hear about the field, they are hooked. 

“GCs love their jobs,” Singleton says. “They speak with and help people every day. There are so many things you can do, and not feel stuck.” 

The role of genetic counseling

Genetic testing has become an integral part of patient care, and partnering with genetic counselors has never been more important than now. As Lopez says, serving as a genetic counselor means “being a calming presence and advocating for someone.”

Genetic counselors are health care professionals with advanced training in medical genetics and psychosocial counseling who partner with patients seeking information about inherited conditions affecting them or their families. 

Counselors practice in a variety of health care settings in the United States, including (but not limited to) prenatal, fertility, pediatrics, metabolic, cardiovascular, neurology and cancer care. They help patients and their physicians to understand family history, discuss the risks, benefits and limitations of genetic testing, interpret results and implications of genetic testing, and help communicate this information to family members. 

Program co-director Lauren Lichten has seen how much the field has evolved since her own training in the early 2000s. 

“Students now are practicing in areas that didn’t exist a decade ago, but the length of the training programs has stayed the same,” Lichten says. “There is so much for the students to learn in a short time.”

One unique aspect of the Emory Genetic Counseling Training Program is the Focus Internship. It spans the two years of the students’ training and provides an extended and in-depth experience in one area of human genetics practice and/or research. Students participate in activities and meetings and offer valuable work of benefit to their mentor, but the Focus Internship also provides the basis for the students’ Capstone Project (which includes project design and execution, review/collection and analysis of data, submission of an abstract to a national meeting and completion of a first-author publishable manuscript based on their project).

Lopez is working with Kate Garber, who oversees genetics education for Emory's medical programs, to review national standards for genetics counseling on variant interpretation: a continually expanding and changing landscape as next-generation sequencing and genomics become more accessible. 

Singleton, together with geneticist Emily Allen — an expert on Fragile X syndrome and related disorders — is planning a survey of health care providers’ knowledge of FXPOI (fragile X-associated primary ovarian insufficiency).

Looking toward the future

As the field of genetic counseling grows, Lichten says it is important for the demographics of the profession to evolve to be more representative of the diverse population of the United States.

To that end, Emory’s program began an annual campaign for a Diversity Scholarship Fund in 2020. The program has raised enough funds to award a $5,000 scholarship to two incoming students from backgrounds underrepresented in medicine: Lopez and Singleton. 

In honor of Genetic Counseling Awareness Day on Nov. 10, members of the Emory Genetic Counseling Training Program encourage others to help grow the Diversity Scholarship Fund by at least $10,000 by donating to this year’s fundraising campaign. 

“Any donation amount helps us grow these important scholarship funds,” Lichten says. “Graduate school is a time-intensive and expensive undertaking and defraying some of the cost of attendance will make a large impact on the next generation of the profession.”

Recent News