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Inspired by a genetics course, alumna found passion, career passion

“To know that you’re helping someone prevent a future cancer or catch it as early as possible when it’s not as dangerous is pretty powerful,” said Northeastern alumna Renee Pelletier. “Even when patients learn about a mutation in their family, they’re really grateful to have that information, and it’s really cool to see that.”

Pelletier graduated from the College of Science in 2014 with her BS in Biology. Now, she has completed her MS in Genetic Counseling from the Boston University School of Medicine and works as a cancer genetic counselor at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Cancer Risk Assessment (MGH CCRA).

From music to science

As a young freshman at Northeastern, Pelletier began her college career as a music industry major. But she quickly realized it wasn’t the right path for her and switched to biology, where she was inspired by her genetics course and summer lab experience at New England Biolabs. But she still wasn’t totally sure what direction her future would take her.

“I wasn’t totally sold on the idea of going to medical school,” she said. “I was more interested in learning, in being in a cool career at the forefront of exciting discoveries.”
Pelletier found those passions through her genetic course, during which she heard about genetic counseling, an up and coming job in clinical and biotech fields. Pelletier then began applying for co-ops and spent six months working with the gene discovery core of the Manton Center for Orphan Disease Research. There, she worked with several genetic counselors in research, working with rare diseases and helping to coordinate whole exome sequencing to try and find diagnoses.

“It was the perfect sweet spot of what I liked about the clinic and the lab. My team was so knowledgeable, and I learned a lot about what was going on in the lab and the clinic side of things,” said Pelletier. She enjoyed her time there so much, she continued to work there part time after co-op and throughout the rest of her time at Northeastern.

For her second co-op, Pelletier worked abroad in Malta at an emergency department. She gained a lot of experience in medical skills but missed working with genetic counselors and realized that the highly competitive field needed to be in her future.

“I was only a sophomore at the time, but my first co-op is why I’m doing what I’m doing now,” said Pelletier. “It exposed me to what genetic counseling is and showed me how much I really liked it.”

So what is genetic counseling?

The genetic counseling field is expanding more and more with technology and furthered understanding of different diseases. As a genetic counselor, one meets with patients to look at their genetic history to help advise for, predict the risk of, and understand the nature of different inherited diseases or conditions.

“The genetic counseling career was created because a lot of doctors didn’t have the time or specialized knowledge in their programs to learn about how to explain disease and technologies to their patients,” said Pelletier. “Genetic counselors can step in as a good additional provider that can explain what genetic tests are doing, what else they can tell you that you might not immediately think about like incidental findings, risks, benefits of bloodwork tests.”

Right now, the genetics community is booming, and there are multitudes of research coming out in many specialties. Genetic counselors provide patients with essential individualized care and are trained to explain things in ways that are easily understandable to the public. Aside from understanding the technology and research, genetic counselors also have to be able to be a support system for their patients, as they talk through emotional topics that may affect the whole family.

But surprisingly, this field is still unknown to many, and Pelletier often gets asked what exactly she does. The profession is only about 50 years old, and there are only about 30 programs in the country. Each has less than 20 students, leaving only about 4,000 practicing genetic counselors in the country.

“We have to fight to show our worth, because it’s not always obvious. As doctors are learning about how genetic counseling can help their practices, the field has slowly grown as more counselors appear in those practices,” said Pelletier.

Becoming a genetic counselor

Pelletier completed the two-year MS Genetic Counseling program at BU, graduating in May of 2017. Classes entailed a mix of genetics, molecular biology, genetic technology, combined with communication and ethics, counseling techniques and more.

“A huge part of it is taking the technical information we’ve learned and learning about how to communicate that to a patient,” said Pelletier. “We also learn to address ethical questions and how our patients might react to them.”

In addition to coursework, genetic counseling students gain experience in several specialty clinical rotations, often focusing on pre-natal, cancer, and pediatrics. Pelletier also interned at the Partners HealthCare Lab for Molecular Medicine where she learned about the lab aspects of genetic counseling. Many of her classmates also spent time in research or working for advocacy groups, each focusing on their specialized interests for their futures as genetic counselors.

“Graduate school taught me that I never want to be married to just one thing – there’s so much promise in the field and I’m so drawn to this career because there are so many specialties to explore within the clinic and in industry,” Pelletier said.

On the job

Now, Pelletier works at MGH with a team of 14 women in the Center for Cancer Risk Assessment. Here, she works with patients and families diagnosed with cancer or with a family history of it.

“We meet with them before they have genetic testing done to determine if it’s something that’s right for them, if it would help their treatment,” she said. “There are a lot of clinical trials right now contingent on genetic counseling testing results, which is a big part in our utility as clinicians in helping people get enrolled in those.”

Pelletier got into the oncology track of genetic counseling in graduate school. “I surprised myself and fell in love with the clinical aspect and working with patients, face to face interactions and talking with them as a support system if they needed it. I loved my cancer rotation in school and wanted to pursue it further.”

Day to day, Pelletier spends time meeting with patients talking through risks and benefits. Through detailed family histories and research on the type of cancers seen, she looks to find patterns and identify the hereditary risks as compared to environmental ones. Results are reported to patients and then Pelletier works with doctors to determine what the next steps should be for someone who has a mutation. She then helps set up the follow up appointments.

“I love working with the patients. Sitting face to face in a room and talking with them about my favorite thing to talk about, is always really exciting,” she said. “Even when it’s really emotional, by the end of the session knowing they’re leaving more informed and a little more comfortable with their risks, that’s a pretty cool thing.”

Pelletier is grateful to Northeastern for giving her the co-op experiences to enrich her courses and help her find the right path early on. Through many classes, experiences, and opportunities with classmates and through clubs, these all gave her the foundation to drive her career as a genetic counselor.

To the future genetic counselors

Boston has the highest percent of genetic counselors for people in a city, so being in this city is a great place to prepare for a career in the field. Pelletier strongly recommends reaching out to genetic counselors to learn more about the job. “Literally reach out to any of the counselors in Boston. That’s the cool thing because we’re such a new field, everyone wants to spread the word about it and get people excited about it,” she said. There are also a lot of assistant jobs, upcoming internship and graduate school shadowing opportunities, which is an exciting way to see what the career is like.

Pelletier’s team at the Center for Cancer Risk Assessment is offering a genetic counseling assistant co-op position for this fall, a great opportunity for those interested in gaining direct experience and connections in genetic counseling.

As a young professional in a female-dominated field, Pelletier has loved every minute of the exciting, often-changing career.

“It is such a cool profession. It’s really exciting and it’s changing every day. So, if anyone is the type of person that needs something exciting, there’s pretty much a guarantee that this career won’t stay the same – and that’s so awesome to me,” she said.

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