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Career Day

Translating the genetic code

Part interpreter, part mathematician, a genetic counselor guides people through good news and bad.

By Jenni Gritters

Melissa Dempsey is a certified genetic counselor and a product manager for the genetics company GeneDx.

How did you become a genetic counselor?
I was a biology major in college. I pursued graduate school, but after a year, I took time off and went to work in a fly genetics lab. I knew I liked genetics because it was like math — and I knew I wanted to be out with people rather than in a lab.

Why do we need genetic counselors?
People read things on the internet or see a commercial, but we can sit down and actually make this complicated information clear. I’m like an interpreter.

What was your first job in the field?
It was at a pediatric genetics clinic. A lot of kids came in with birth defects and major medical problems. We’d order genetic testing and I’d sit down with the family to talk through the results.

“It’s not just, ‘Do you want the test?’ but also, ‘Do you want the test right now?’ It’s usually 50-50 good news and bad.”

What else do genetic counselors do?
Prenatal genetic counseling involves meeting with women who are pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant and who have a history of genetic disease or other high-risk factors. Adult counseling is for people with cancer or cardiology indications. If the doctor sees a red flag, they might send them to us to see if there’s a gene that could be causing that.

What’s the hardest part of this job?
You see a lot of bad news. I know a lot of the hard things people go through with kids and pregnancy. It can be draining to see that hard stuff over and over again. Another hard thing is the misconceptions people have about genetic counseling. I am also a conservative Catholic living in Indiana, and genetic counseling is not always looked at favorably here.

Is it always worth it to get information about your genetic risks?
I tell people: It’s up to you to decide. It’s not just, “Do you want the test?” but also, “Do you want the test right now?” I want them to think about whether they have the capacity to handle bad news, because it’s usually 50-50 good news and bad.

What’s the future of genetic counseling?
Right now, there aren’t enough counselors to go around. But in the future, I think more people will get testing done, routinely when you’re born, or during pregnancy, or at certain markers in your life. I also think genetic information will become more available via chat bots, telegenetics, and even apps on your phone.

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Jenni Gritters is a writer based in Seattle.

 

Illustration by Verónica Grech

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