“It’s such an advantage to have diversity in any area of medicine. Whether it’s the language you speak, the background you come from or the color of your skin, seeing things through different lenses is always important. It helps you establish trust and make that connection with your patients.” -Camerun Washington, genetic counseling student
Camerun Washington was a freshman in high school when his biology teacher brought up the subject of common genetic traits.
He raced home to ask his family if he could inspect their ears to see if they had attached or detached lobes. He then completed a family tree to look for traits passed down from generations before him.
“That sparked my interest in genetics,” Washington says. “Then in my junior year, I really got hooked.”
That year, his AP biology teacher brought up the subject of DNA mutations and genetic counselors.
“I had never heard of genetic counselors,” Washington says. “I immediately Googled it.”
What he discovered changed his future. After graduating from Winthrop University in 2017 as a dual major (modern languages and biology), he enrolled in VCU’s Genetic Counseling Program. He is on track to earn his master’s degree in 2019.
“I want to help people uncover how genetics can affect their health,” he says. “I want to help guide their health care decisions.”
Established in 1990, the VCU Genetic Counseling Program has prepared more than 130 graduates for careers in genetic counseling. Washington is the first African-American man to enroll.
“Despite the diversity of the genome and of patients’ experiences, the genetic counseling field is not yet as diverse as if should be,” Rachel Gannaway, M.S., L.C.G.C., director of the School of Medicine’s Genetic Counseling Program and associate director of Clinical Genetic Services in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics. “But there are a lot of patients who respond better to people who look like them. Genetic disease is no different. It is important that the people who graduate from these programs reflect the diversity of our patient population.”
Washington, who grew up just outside Charleston, S.C., wasn’t surprised to learn he was the first African-American male to enroll in the program. He hopes he starts a trend.
“When others see me here, hopefully it will encourage them to pursue the field,” he says. “It’s such an advantage to have diversity in any area of medicine. Whether it’s the language you speak, the background you come from or the color of your skin, seeing things through different lenses is always important. It helps you establish trust and make that connection with your patients.”
Washington, who is fluent in French, is already making that link. This semester, he is counseling patients for the first time under the supervision of his professors. Most of the counseling so far has been in the area of prenatal genetics.
“It’s so exciting to take what you are learning in the classroom and apply it to the real world,” he says.
Genetic counselors see a wide variety of patients, from parents concerned about their child’s developmental delays to young adults who have a family history of heart disease or cancer.
“We can help determine their risk and better monitor their health,” says Washington, who receives a partial scholarship funded by the School of Medicine. “We can be more proactive if someone is predisposed to disease.”
“Here in the School of Medicine, we are privileged to train health care professionals who’ll serve patients in all kinds of roles,” says Peter F. Buckley, M.D. “Across the board, we are committed to supporting a diverse workforce and are proud to see the skills, empathy and experiences that Camerun will contribute.”
As people become more interested in family traits, thanks in part to direct-to-consumer genetic tests, the demand for genetic counselors could continue to rise. According to the National Society of Genetic Counselors, there are about 2,500 certified genetic counselors working in clinical care in the United States. It’s estimated that by 2020, the workforce will need between 3,500 and 4,500 in clinical care.
“I have been blessed to be in this position where I can pursue my passion,” Washington says. “I can’t wait to see where it takes me.”
By Janet Showalter