As DNA’s secrets are revealed, genetic counsellors interpret results (Kirsten Bartels)

Thirteen years after scientists sequenced the human genome, we are still trying to figure out how to read it and what to do about the stories it tells. It’s clear the presence of certain genes can predict our vulnerability to disease, including cancer and birth defects. But the decisions to test for these genes and act on the results raise tough questions.

Enter the genetics counsellor: a growing profession that combines education in genetics and psychology to help guide patients through the process. “I love the genetics part of it. But the part that’s really fascinating is the counselling,” says William Pirjamali, a genetics counsellor at Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre.

Kirsten Bartels, a genetic counsellor at the Heart Centre at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, volunteered as a crisis-line counsellor during the last two years of her undergrad in biological sciences at Simon Fraser University. That and a university co-op placement at the B.C. Cancer Agency’s hereditary cancer program gave her the advantage she needed to get into UBC’s M.Sc. in genetic counselling in 2009. “It’s harder to get into a genetic counselling program than it is to get into medical school,” says Susan Randall Armel, assistant director of the U of T program and a senior genetic counsellor at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto. Just 18 students are accepted each year: six to UBC, four each at the rest. But graduates are in high demand, and programs are looking to expand, says Randall Armel.

Sharon Oosthoek reports

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