COPH graduates first cohort in genetic counseling program

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On May 2, the USF College of Public Health (COPH) conferred MSPH degrees on the first group of students graduating its genetic counseling program.

Genetic counselors help families understand and adapt to the genetic risk factors of disease.

Four students graduated the program, which is the only accredited genetic counseling graduate program in the state of Florida.

The program, launched in 2017, is a comprehensive, 21-month, full-time course of study that 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.

“We are so proud of our students,” said Dr. Deborah Cragun, an assistant professor of global and planetary health. “This was a brand-new program when they entered, and we all went through [the growing pains] together. We could not have developed this program without their partnership.”

The COPH graduates its first group of genetic counselors. Left to right, Joy Kechik, Lindsey Victoria, Réka Müller and Deanna Almanza. (Photo courtesy of Cragun)

All of the students have accepted—or are in the midst of securing—jobs. It’s likely that two of the students will work in Tampa Bay and a third on the East Coast of Florida.

Cragun notes that while the program is growing (five students are in the next cohort), class size is hampered by the lack of practicing genetic counselors in the state with whom students can do clinical rotations.

“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,” she commented. “Right now, there are only about 14 genetic counselors in the Tampa Bay area with whom our students can rotate. And the students need rotations in a variety of areas, including pediatrics, prenatal and oncology.” But there is some good news on the horizon, notes Cragun. “As the number of genetic counselors in our area grows, so will our program.”

DNA strand. (Google Images)

A highlight of the graduation ceremony was the conferring of an honorary DrPH on Audrey Heimler, who, in 1971, was one of eight students to earn a degree from the first genetic counseling graduate program in the U.S., located at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, NY.

Heimler and her colleagues founded the National Society of Genetic Counselors in 1979; this year it celebrates its 40th anniversary. One of her goals in organizing the group was to give genetic counselors a voice in the structure and direction of their own profession.

Audrey Heimler, a pioneer in the field of genetic counseling, received an honorary DrPH from USF at the USF Health graduation ceremony held May 2. (Photo courtesy of Heimler)

Heimler spent most of her career in clinical practice, although she also found time to publish several journal articles. She even has a genetic disease—Heimler syndrome— named after her. Heimler syndrome is a rare condition in which damage to the inner ear causes hearing loss.

Today Heimler is in her 80s, lives in the Sarasota area and stays actively involved in her community through the newborn hearing screening program at Sarasota Memorial Hospital.

“This is really exciting,” said Cragun. “A pioneer in the field of genetic counseling was recognized when our first cohort received their degrees. Our faculty, together with our first cohort of genetic counseling students, have channeled Ms. Heimler’s pioneering spirit and applied her high standards and expectations of our profession as we continue to build and improve our genetic counseling program at USF.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health