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Students Get Schooled in Genetic Counseling
Posted On:
Monday, June 12, 2017
Brandon Shaw and Melisa Guthrie
Brandon Shaw and Melisa Guthrie

01-June-2017 (HCS) - Melisa Guthrie was shocked to receive a cancer diagnosis in the fall of 2016.  That October, it was discovered through routine testing that she had stage three colon cancer.

“Right away, as a teacher, I realized this was going to be a teachable moment for my students,” Guthrie said. “I wanted my students to hear [about my diagnosis] from me.”

Guthrie - a science teacher at Spain Park High School since 2007- began incorporating some elements of her diagnosis into her lessons, sharing with students components of her cancer journey that were not only relevant to their studies, but connected to their possible future career fields.

Early in her diagnosis, Guthrie also discovered through talks with her physicians about a field known as genetic counseling.  The concept piqued her interest right away.

“I have been teaching biology for ten years and had no idea what a genetic counselor was,” Guthrie said. “Coming into contact with a genetic counselor was so impactful for me.  They’re an educator, an advocate, and a psychologist.”

Genetic counseling, in the long history of medical science, remains relatively new.  The National Society of Genetic Counselors was incorporated in 1979.  In the decades since, the Society and other health professionals have helped grow the field - in size, scope, and popularity.  

So what do genetic counselors do?  They work with patients/families faced with the risk of genetic disease(s).  They give insight into health issues a person has - or might have - through the lens and science of genetics.  Beyond the scientific realm, they offer emotional assistance in the form of counseling, guidance, and connections to resources about which patients and their families might not know.

Armed with new knowledge about the field, Guthrie invited “future” genetic counselor Brandon Shaw to speak with all Spain Park High School biology classes in late spring 2017 (he has since become “official” -  post-graduation in mid-April)  The University of Georgia alumnus began his career in education; yet found his calling in genetic counseling.

“I had always had an interest in health care.  When I found genetic counseling it was the perfect fit,” Shaw said.

Shaw speaks with SPHS biology studentsAfter leaving UGA, Shaw set out for Peru.  While in South America, he taught English for two years while conducting some counseling on the side.  Though he enjoyed his time there, he discovered his skills might be better suited for health care. That’s when he sought a Master’s of Science in Genetic Counseling from UAB, one of only 30 or so such programs in the United States, he says.

“We help patients and families who are at risk for genetic conditions.  We help them make decisions about genetic testing,” Shaw said.

This includes people who even think they may be at risk.  With 39% of people expected to get some form of cancer at some point in their lives, according to Shaw, genetic counseling proves more important now than ever.

“We get to talk not only about the science, but the emotions that go into it,” Shaw said.

As students cycled in and out of Shaw’s talk that Tuesday, they walked away with a little more insight into this burgeoning field - learning about genetic counseling’s impact on individuals, families and the profession in general.  Shaw, Guthrie says, was able to “hook” the students; sharing interesting stories about famous people and their genetic disorders, cases on which he’s worked, and general research efforts at UAB.

“The students were really interested because the lecture was perfectly timed in the genetic unit. They could see the connection to the classroom,” Guthrie said.  “It introduced them to a new career field while reviewing/strengthening their content knowledge.  If we, as educators, can personalize the content, the chance that they will value education increases, which in turn increases their willingness to engage in the learning process.”

Jason Gaston
HCS Public Relations

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