This commentary is contributed as part of the guest blogger series Diverse GC Roles.
By Sarah Waltho, MS, CGC
Sarah Waltho received her undergraduate B.Sc. degree in Health Studies from the University of Waterloo in June 2006. She went on to earn her Master’s Degree in Human Genetics from the Genetic Counselling Program at Sarah Lawrence College in New York in May 2009. After graduation, Sarah worked clinically at the Victoria hospital in London, Ontario as a counsellor for prenatal, cancer, metabolic and paediatric genetic cases. She currently works for an American-based company, GeneDx , as the company’s sole Canadian Cardiac Product Specialist, where she is based in Toronto, Ontario and travels throughout Canada.
How it all started
After spending two amazing years studying in the Big Apple, where I earned my Master’s degree while taking in the sights and sounds of New York in my down time, I had high hopes of returning to Ontario (some would call me crazy for leaving NYC, but that’s another story) and finding a position close to home. Unfortunately, the job prospects in Ontario were anything but optimistic in the genetic counselling field. So, I did what many other new grads find themselves doing…covering a maternity leave. It was a lucky move for me, I started as a prenatal genetic counselor at a hospital in London, Ontario and was given the opportunity to take on roles in the pediatric, metabolic and cancer counselling clinics; and had the supervision and mentorship of a very smart, talented and dedicated group of genetic counsellors.
As my year went on, my time in that position was running out, and I began the search for another genetic counselling job, this time hoping to find something more permanent.
I exhausted the “usual suspects” (Workopolis, CAGC, NSGC websites) and applied to the handful of genetic counselling roles that came up. After little success, I broadened my search and happened upon a job posting for a sales role in Chicago, for GeneDx.
My first thought was: Sales? The horror! But quickly realizing that my ideal career of a counselling job, close to home may not be in the cards for me at this point in my life, and ever-embracing the reality of a “non-traditional role”, I decided to apply.
Only 20 minutes after hitting the “send” button of my application, something unusual happened: I received a phone call from GeneDx, specifically, from my now current boss. He said: “Sarah, I received your application, thank you for your interest”; he went on to say, “we have actually met before, and I remember you quite well.” I was thinking this may not go so well, and I racked my brain to try to remember when we would have met. As it turned out, I had actually stopped by the GeneDx booth at an NSGC conference in Atlanta and had a conversation with my now current boss, who remembered our encounter (this may also have had to do with the fact that I took quite a few of their cute zebra giveaways!) He went on to say that I gave a lasting impression and they always appreciate hearing feedback from genetic counsellors. After noticing that my resume had a Canadian address, he asked if I would be interested in an opportunity working out of Toronto (which was ideal!) and the rest is history.
Day to day life
So that brings me to today. I am now the Canadian representative for GeneDx, specifically, their Cardiac Product Specialist. I give presentations to both cardiology and genetic clinics, and play a vital role in keeping clinics current on test offerings and offering support and a resource for counsellors. About half of my time involves travel (mostly across Canada, but also to the US). I have the unique opportunity to be involved in the ever-evolving field of cardiac genetics, which has proved to be fascinating.
I originally had a few reservations about leaving the clinical world, especially so early on in my career. I was afraid I would not feel fulfilled in my role, that I may fall out of date, or that I would not be able to return to clinical role if I decided to. I also feared I would feel some stigma from the field of genetic counseling.
As it turns out, I truly feel satisfied in my current career path and the position I hold. Being actively involved as a patient advocate, though I no longer provide clinical counselling, my job works to bring genetics and cardiology together.
Working to support genetic counsellors and bringing feedback from the field to the laboratory has also been rewarding and helps keep me current in the field (as does my seemingly never-ending studying for Board exams…) I feel empowered and enlightened by being exposed to the laboratory and business side of genetic counselling and realize that this experience can only add to a genetic counsellor’s already broad skill set.
I have also felt that my role has been well received by both the cardiology and genetic counselling fields. GeneDx has been supportive of my role; they have hired many genetic counsellors into non-traditional roles.
Things I’ve learned
Taking on a “non-traditional role”…or, as I prefer, a term I recently heard in the field, a “diversified” genetic counselling role, has been a fulfilling and dynamic experience.
I feel that a genetic counsellor is an ideal fit for this type of work. Having both an understanding of clinical/testing process, and a solid background in genetics, I am able to respond to feedback and support counsellors in the field, and work to fill any gaps, or provide genetic education to physicians.
I can’t stress enough the importance of networking. I wouldn’t be in the incredible position I am today if I hadn’t taken the time to attend the NSGC and stopped to speak with the people at the GeneDx booth. So my advice to new grads or any genetic counsellor looking to expand his/her role, is to network, make contacts, get your name out there, see what other positions and career opportunities are out there, and broaden your job search criteria. Networking at a conference is an especially unique opportunity to learn about what is going on in the field and meet new people in a relaxed climate.
My clinical work experience also proved invaluable, and I think that having some clinical experience after graduating is beneficial before taking on a non-traditional role. It allowed me to practice things I learned throughout my training, and really allowed me to gain a better understanding of how a genetics clinic is organized and an appreciation for the role of genetic counsellors.
Genetics as a field is growing and developing in non-traditional ways, and it makes sense that the genetic counselling profession would evolve along a parallel path. As genetic testing advances, the process and understanding becomes that much more complex. Having genetic counsellors working outside their traditional roles, ensures we will have well informed professionals in these new areas of growth, that benefits not only doctors and counsellors, but also patients and families.
I really look forward to reading the other guest blogs this week, and I thank the DNA Exchange for giving me the opportunity to share my story.