35th Anniversary Spotlight: USF Genetic Counseling Program

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Genetic Counselor Awareness Day is November 14

A first of its kind in Florida, the USF College of Public Health made headlines again in 2016 as the first in Florida to offer a graduate degree in genetic counseling.

The COPH and the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics teamed up with faculty across the university and throughout the Tampa Bay area to create the genetic counseling program. Currently, USF’s Division of Genetics & Metabolism, USF’s Division of Maternal Fetal Medicine, Moffitt Cancer Center, Integrated Genetics, BayCare, Lakeland Regional Health Care, Nemours Children’s Hospital, Orlando Health, Quest Diagnostics, and other community partners provide students with the hands-on experience required for graduation.

The 42-credit graduate degree program is open to students with a bachelor’s degree in any major; however, some background in biology and genetics is important to be competitive. The comprehensive, full-time program consists of didactic and skill-based course work with multiple clinical rotations and field experiences. There are also independent learning opportunities and a thesis research requirement.

The program is the first and only accredited genetic counseling graduate program in the state and was established to meet the critical demand for certified genetic counselors in Florida.

“Florida has far fewer genetic counselors per capita than the other top 10 most populous states, and Florida was the last of these states to begin a genetic counseling graduate program,” said Dr. Deborah Cragun, assistant professor of global and planetary health. “While more people with genetic predispositions for certain cancers or other conditions are seeking out testing, there is a critical shortage of certified genetic counselors to help guide patients and their families through the process.”

In January of 2016, USF approved the genetic counseling program’s curriculum and in October of that same year, it earned crucial accreditation from the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling. Accreditation as a new program by this national organization is essential for graduating students to be eligible to take the American Board of Genetic Counseling examination and become certified genetic counselors.

With that milestone met, the program welcomed its inaugural class of students in the fall of 2017. These four students, Deanna Almanza, Joy Kechik, Réka Müller and Lindsey Victoria, were selected out of nearly 100 applicants.

According to Dr. Kathleen Pope, the medical director for the program, the accreditation of USF’s program and the selection of the inaugural class are huge milestones in addressing the critical demand for genetic counselors in Florida.

After completing the 21-month program, the inaugural class graduated from the genetic counseling program with their MSPH degrees on May 2, 2019.

According to Dr. Kathleen Pope, the medical director for the program, “Graduation of the inaugural class is an important milestone in addressing the critical demand for genetic counselors in Florida, especially because 3 of the 4 graduates took positions in the state.”

The COPH’s first group of genetic counselors at the program’s graduation celebration. Left to right, Deborah Cragun, Réka Müller, Lindsey Victoria, Audrey Heimler, Joy Kechik, Deanna Almanza, and Kathleen Pope. (Photo courtesy of Cragun)

“We are so proud of our graduates,” Cragun said. “Our first few classes really are pioneers for the program and each year they are helping us improve. Given the pioneering spirit of our first graduates it was fitting that Audrey Heimler was conferred an honorary DrPH at our inaugural graduation ceremony in May 2019.”

Heimler, who is retired and living in Sarasota, was a graduate of the very first cohort of genetic counselors in the world, earning her degree from Sarah Lawrence College in 1971. She subsequently went on to become the founding president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC), an organization that has now been advocating for the profession for 40 years.

In the summer of 2019, Nevena Krstić joined the program leadership as the Rotation Coordinator. Krstić is a genetic counselor in the Division of Maternal Fetal Medicine at USF, and has over six years of experience as a clinical supervisor for genetic counseling students. She will help the genetic counseling students prepare for their clinical rotations and has begun a weekly clinical skills practice session. 

“The ability to participate in clinical supervision and education of genetic counseling students is very important to me. The establishment of the program in Florida was one of the leading reasons why I decided to return to my home state.” Krstić stated. “Our rotations serve as a way to expose students to wide breadth and depth of clinical cases but also to forge relationships and connections with different clinicians and supervisors across various specialties who will soon become their colleagues.” 

Cragun notes that while the program is growing with five students in each of the current two cohorts, class size remains hampered by the lack of practicing genetic counselors in the state with whom students can do clinical rotations.

“Right now, there are only about 14 genetic counselors in the Tampa Bay area with whom our students can see patients on clinical rotations. And the students need rotations in a variety of areas, including pediatrics, prenatal and oncology.” Cragun said. “But once our two graduates who filled positions at USF have a year of experience they will be able to supervise and we look forward to eventually expanding the program’s size.”

View all articles on USF COPH’s Genetic Counseling Program below.

USF offers first Florida programs in genetic counseling and nutrition

Florida’s first master’s degree program in genetic counseling earns accreditation

Genetic counseling program welcomes inaugural class

COPH graduates first cohort in genetic counseling program