Sylvia Mann, MS, CGC
® is Supervisor, State of Hawaii Department of Health Genomics Section and Project Director of Western States Regional Genetics Network.
Why did you choose to become a genetic counselor?
I discovered the genetic counseling profession while searching for a topic to write about for my genetics seminar during my undergraduate studies at the University of British Columbia. The description of genetic counseling really resonated with my interests and diverted me from my pre-medical studies path. Luckily, Dr. Judith Hall was one of my mentors and was very supportive of my pursuit to become a genetic counselor.
What are your current roles and what path did you take to get to them?
I was the first formally trained genetic counselor to work in Hawaii and have participated in the development of most of the genetic services in the state. I joined the State of Hawaii Department of Health in 1993 and my role has evolved from overseeing the Genetics Program to creating and supervising the Genomics Section, which oversees the Newborn Metabolic Screening, Newborn Hearing Screening, Birth Defects, and Genetics programs.
Since 2003, I have also been the Project Director for the Western States Regional Genetics Network (WSRGN), one of the seven Regional Genetics Networks (RGNs) funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration. The WSRGN consists of Alaska, California, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. The mission of the RGNs is to support increasing access to genetic services, information and education to underserved populations. In this role, I worked with our WSRGN partners to be leaders in supporting genetic provider training and implementation of telehealth, development of resources for families and increasing access to genetic services for racial and ethnic minority families.
It has been interesting developing genetic clinical services and public health activities over the past 30 years and I have been fortunate to have very supportive local, regional and national partners willing to try out my ideas even when they are sometimes a bit “out there.”
What’s it like to work in Hawaii?
I didn’t know what I was getting into when I first moved to Hawaii after graduating from Sarah Lawrence. However, it has turned out to be a wonderful place to work. The people are friendly and laid back, but have a sense of ohana (family) in caring for the community. I’ve had massive support from the Department of Health and community for my work. It helps that I’ve successfully competed and received over $27 million in federal funding for my activities and research.
I think I’ve had such diverse opportunities in my work. I’ve developed programs, written and passed laws, done public health and clinical research, served on local and national advisory committees, done massive community engagement activities, participated in federal grant review and so much more than genetic counselors usually have an opportunity to do.
What motivated you to help create the Minority Genetic Professionals Network (MGPN)?
As one of the activities under the WSRGN, the Minority Genetic Professionals Network (MGPN) was initially developed in 2016 as an activity to increase racial and ethnic minority students to enter training to become genetics professionals. The idea was to increase minority genetics providers that can provide cultural and language appropriate services to minority families. We also wanted students from minority communities to become genetic professionals and go back to work in their home communities. Activities include connecting with undergraduate and high school students to inform them about genetic professions, implementing a virtual career fair, creating a Slack channel for prospective students to connect with each other and a formal mentorship program.
As our recruitment and mentorship activities were implemented, we received feedback that current practicing minority genetics providers also wanted to have support, mentorship, and networking opportunities. In response to this need, we expanded the MGPN to provide networking and activities to support minority genetics providers to stay and excel in their professions.
There are currently approximately 900 MGPN members, comprised of practicing genetic providers, current trainees and prospective students. Most of the members are genetic counselors or genetic counseling trainees.
We did not expect the pandemic and national and world events, starting with the murder of George Floyd, would highlight the importance of MGPN so much. It has been a support system for our minority genetics providers and students and has allowed prospective students to explore the profession during a pandemic. And, it has provided a centralized organization to allow advocacy, communication and feedback for genetic counseling organizations that are considering diversity, equity, inclusion and justice activities.
Do you feel that the MGPN played a role in increasing the diversity of the applicant pool this admission cycle? If so, how?
Genetic counseling training program directors have told me that many applicants this cycle mentioned MGPN in their applications and/or their interviews. After Match Day, we had MGPN members report being matched to over 30 programs.
The Virtual Career Fair we held in October 2020 had more than 1,200 attendees with at least 30% minority students. After the Career Fair, we converted the website to a centralized site with information about genetic counseling training programs. We plan to hold the Career Fair annually and will also host a summer series with information about various admissions programs for prospective students.
Are there any diversity focused resources that you would like to share?
There are many resources available on the MGPN website
Any other thoughts that you’d like to share about your career or the GC field?
Over the years I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors as a student and during my career to help navigate the many paths. However, I wish I had a MGPN to support me in this profession. It has been difficult being a minority as a genetic counselor and I’ve experienced racism and bullying by genetic counselors. I want minority genetic counselors to know that they can be successful and that they now have MGPN for support.