Stephanie Asher, MS, CGC is Associate Director of Genetic Counseling with the University of Pennsylvania’s Division of Translational Medicine and Human Genetics. Stephanie served as the Committee Chair for ABGC’s Certification Exam Committee (CEC) in 2020.
Why did you choose to become a genetic counselor?
I have always been fascinated by genetics. I had a poster about the human genome project in my childhood bedroom and was drawn to the topic of genetics in my high school classes! Once I learned about the lived experiences of patients and families affected by genetic disorders, I knew that I wanted to become a genetic counselor.
Why did you choose to specialize in cancer and adult genetics?
My specialization has been largely driven by my career development. I would say that I’m interested in pretty much all genetic counseling that involves working directly with patients. When an interesting position became available a few years ago that allowed me to take on managerial and clinical development roles, I jumped at the opportunity. This has been an incredible fit, as I have had the chance to focus on mentorship for genetic counselors and expanding clinical genetics services into new areas. Getting to work with patients in cancer and adult genetics has been an added bonus to an already great position!
What does an average day for you look like?
In my role, I have clinical responsibilities, as well as administrative and clinical operations duties. Approximately 40% of my job involves seeing patients, either in partnership with a medical geneticist or independently with patients that are best suited for genetic counseling only visits. The other 60% of my position entails administrative tasks such as ensuring that clinics run smoothly, developing new clinical services, and various other projects.
What is the most rewarding part of being a genetic counselor?
The most rewarding part of my role is launching new clinical services and seeing unmet genetic counseling needs finally being addressed! Integration of genetic counselors into new clinical areas, such as Adult-Onset Hearing Loss, or working on projects to better utilize the electronic medical record for genomics data, have been incredible opportunities.
What is the most challenging part of being a certified genetic counselor?
The most challenging part for me is maintaining work-life balance. I have a difficult time saying no to new opportunities, but it’s important to me that I have time for my family, hobbies and travel. Consequently, I am working on keeping those aspects in mind when deciding how to prioritize and taking on new projects, no matter how fun or interesting they may seem.
What advice would you give to prospective genetic counselors?
Do not be afraid to take time off between undergraduate and graduate school. For folks who are considering a career change from a different field, don’t see that time spent doing other things as a deterrent. I worked for three years as a research assistant prior to starting graduate school, and that was a really valuable experience. Not only did it give me the opportunity to participate in basic genetics research, but it was time that I used to recharge after an intense undergraduate experience. Having the break really solidified in my mind that genetic counseling was the right career path for me, so I started grad school with replenished energy and excitement.
In 2020 you served as Chair of ABGC’s CEC committee, what was that experience like?
Being the CEC chair was a great opportunity, after first being an item writer and then a volunteer on the committee for two years. As a Committee member I had the experience of seeing how items are written and how the exam is created, so I knew what to expect as Chair in some ways.
2020 was a year unlike any other though. Typically, we meet in January and April for two two-day meetings to review exam items and the first draft of the exam forms. Given the pandemic, we decided to have the second meeting virtually which was different, but worked out really well. In addition, due to the increased interest and focus on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, and after taking the NSGC course on Implicit Bias, committee members had a renewed perspective when reviewing exam items.
Why is it important for CGCs to be a part of the CEC and the exam development process?
The exam is thoughtfully and carefully developed by CGCs, in collaboration with and at the expert scientific advice of PSI. These CGCs volunteer their time for writing, editing and testing items, as well as putting together the exam.
No single genetic counselor is an expert in all areas of practice, so we rely on CGCs to be the subject matter experts, and to determine the important concepts to include on the test (which are based on the detailed content outline) in order to guarantee that genetic counselors are ready to practice.
This is our
test, so making sure that it is of the highest quality ensures that being a certified genetic counselor is a meaningful standard.
What should prospective ABGC volunteers know?
Volunteering with ABGC is a great way to have an impact on the genetic counseling field, as well as meet other passionate volunteers who you may not have interacted with otherwise.
As someone who has been involved in the development of ABGC’s certification exam, what has been your biggest takeaway?
After working on the certification exam, I really appreciate the care and consideration that goes into selecting items for the exam to make sure that is valid, fair and balanced. Items are reviewed on multiple levels and are finessed extensively before they are ever used on an exam form, including being “test” items before they are used as graded items. All along the way, items are evaluated to check for problems and make sure they are acceptable, and many items never make it to being graded items after review.
As a CGC yourself, what is something you learned about the certification exam as a member of the CEC that you might not have known otherwise?
It is really challenging to write items that test psychosocial concepts!
ABGC Spotlight is a monthly series that features Diplomates, healthcare professionals and students sharing their unique experiences with genetic counseling.