A graduate student’s education inspires a career as a genetic counselor

Shontiara Johnson is a second-year graduate student in Ohio State’s Genetic Counseling Graduate Program. Credit: Courtesy of Shontiara Johnson

As a young black girl growing up in the heart of rural Arkansas, Shontiara Johnson saw firsthand what a lack of access to basic health care was like.

Inadequate resources at the small hospital in his hometown of Monticello, Arkansas, meant medevac flights were commonplace, ferrying critically ill patients to Little Rock, Arkansas, about two hours away. of road.

Johnson, a second-year graduate student in Ohio State’s genetic counseling graduate program, said realizing that long medical evacuation flights lead to higher patient death rates had inspired her to provide access and understanding of medical care.

“I wanted to be able to explain science to people with the health literacy that I was used to in Arkansas,” Johnson said. “I wanted to know it so well that I could explain it to anyone, from a small child to an adult, from someone who has an advanced degree, even a doctorate, to someone who doesn’t didn’t even finish graduate school.”

Today, Johnson said she works in one of medicine’s most specialized fields – genetic counselling. She said she was drawn to the profession by a desire to combine her love of science with her passion for helping those in need.

“I literally went to Google and ran a Google search to find ‘Social work and science jobs,'” Johnson said. “I started reading about it, saw the courses I should take and the job description and fell in love with it.”

Johnson continued to champion diversity and equality in health care through her research. She said her master’s thesis aims to determine if and how data on race, ethnicity and ancestry is collected by genetic counselors to better understand the role they play in clinical encounters.

According to Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention, genetic counselors collect family and personal health histories to find out if someone or a family member may have a genetic condition.

Jordan Brown, deputy program director and thesis supervisor at Johnson, said some genetic counselors fail to ask patients for their family history to look for specific genetic conditions, which can lead to important tests not being performed.

“There have never been any studies that characterize what genetic counselors do when they collect this information, or how they collect this information,” Brown said.

According to National Society of Genetic Counselors, 90% of genetic counselors in the United States are white, while only 2% identify as black or African American. Johnson said she was acutely aware of this underrepresentation.

“People who look like me or have my descriptors, you don’t see them in genetic counseling programs,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of hurdles for diversity or minority applicants to even just get into school.”

As part of the two-year program, students are required to complete full-time clinical rotations over the summer. To meet this requirement, Johnson was the 2021 Genetic Counseling Summer Fellow from Color Health, a new initiative that provides genetic counseling students with an internship opportunity and a $10,000 stipend.

Her writing impressed the team at Color Health, a health technology company that provides various healthcare services and screenings, so much so that they invited her to work with them on a new initiative – the GC Immersive. Color Health’s distance learning program provides a genetic counseling experience for graduate school applicants from underrepresented backgrounds.

“As an African-American woman, I have a different perspective than my peers on public health, access to health care and things like that,” Johnson said. “I want to take everything I’ve been through, everything I’ve been through, everything I’ve seen, and make sure it’s best for whoever comes after me.”

Brown said Johnson had already surpassed that goal and was excited for what was to come.

“I’m so excited to see what she brings to this profession, because there are a lot of things that need to change. And his voice will, no doubt, be important in that change,” Brown said.

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