My name is Camille Cooley and I am a graduate of UC Santa Cruz class of 2016, with a major in Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology. 

I was recently accepted into the Genetic Counseling Program through UC Irvine’s School of Medicine, and I am very excited to begin my studies in the Fall. This program is extremely unique because UC Irvine (UCI0 was one of the first schools to have a genetic counseling program, making it one of the most developed and expansive programs available. UC Irvine’s School of Medicine is also ranked as one of the top 50 medical schools for research, which gives graduates of their program a huge advantage in terms of preparing students with a research-focused educational background as well as comprehensive clinical training opportunities. 

A strong understanding of research and how it is currently used to inform superior treatment options is extremely fundamental in becoming a great genetic counselor, because it is such a rapidly evolving field. New genetic tests and gene variants are continually being discovered, and our classifications of particular variants are constantly changing as technology advances. 

My Research Background as Preparation for Genetic Counseling

I first got involved in research at an early age, and have conducted research in many different areas of biology. Originally I was very interested in Marine Biology. Starting in 7th grade and continuing through high school, I spent my summers interning at the UC Davis Marine Lab, where I assisted with various marine biology research projects, maintained four large aquaria and a touch tank, and presented to visitors. During my junior year in college, I studied abroad in a research-intensive field quarter in Australia, where I gained valuable research experience in marine biology and terrestrial ecology at the University of Queensland. Part of the program involved extended field trips to research stations in coastal Queensland and on the Great Barrier Reef, where I studied changes in butterflyfish distribution between healthy and degraded reef systems. Once back from Australia, I started an internship with the UCSC Natural Reserves, where I assisted in ecological research and habitat restoration. This broad range of research experiences, over many years, in many different disciplines, prepares me with the critical thinking and research skills necessary to continually excel in the rapidly evolving field of genetic counseling.

Undergraduate Cancer Research Led to Change in Career Course

Towards the end of my junior year in college I became interested in Molecular Biology and Genetics, and started working in David Haussler’s lab as the lab aide and later a research assistant. 

While I was part of Dr. Haussler’s Lab, I assisted Dr. Olena Vaske with her research on the ATRX gene. ATRX is protein passed along by females; it is observed in many different types of pediatric cancers and strongly associated with tumor growth. We created models of brain tumor growth using the gene editing tool CRISPR/Cas9. 

After creating variant cell lines, we isolated RNA in order to compare mutant and normal cell growth, in the hopes of identifying and describing new gene expression in the mutant lines. While working on the project, I helped maintain, verify, and expand current our cell lines. I also used CRISPR to create a male cell line, so that we could study how the mutation impacts gene expression in cells with only one X-chromosome. 

This experience gave me a profound understanding of genetics from a research standpoint, and had such an impact on my interests that I decided to switch my major from Marine Biology to Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology. This opportunity catalyzed my strong initial interest in genetics, and later cancer-focused genetic counseling. 

Lab Management Experience Broadened My Clinical Perspective

Currently, I work as the Lab Manager and Research Specialist in Dr. Olena Vaske’s Lab, which consists of a computational team and a molecular biology team for the Treehouse Childhood Cancer Initiative at the UC Santa Cruz Genomics Institute. The goal of Treehouse is to improve treatment of cancer patients through the development of computational genomic analysis tools, that can be used to design more personalized, targeted drug therapies. Treehouse originally began exclusively as a computational dry lab, but has now expanded to include a wet lab, where molecular biologists conduct innovative cancer research that can then be analyzed by the computational team. 

As the Lab Manager, I have worked to set up the wet lab so it can be fully operational. This involved directing lab-specific safety training for all lab personnel (including HIPAA training for tumor board attendees), developing written protocols for future molecular biology experiments, ordering lab supplies and equipment, and coordinating meetings between organizations and vendors. 

Pediatric Cancer Research Goals

Once the lab is fully operational, we will conduct pediatric cancer research on established cancer cell lines, which will act as models of cancers in real patients. This will include RNA isolation to determine what genes are being upregulated in the cancer cell lines, and experiments to test our hypothesis that these overexpressed genes are the best targets for drug treatment. We will also test various drugs against these targets, in order to predict which drugs are likely to be the most successful at stopping the growth of similar tumors in real patients. 

While working for the Treehouse Childhood Cancer Initiative, I regularly attend molecular tumor boards at UCSF and Stanford, broadening my understanding of comparative genetics and how it is currently used to inform more effective treatments of patients. This position provides me with an understanding of not only the research and computational side of genetics, but also its clinical applicability. 

What Genetic Counselors Do

While I have always loved research, I also felt like there must be something more out there. I knew I wanted to find a career that encompassed research elements while allowing me to work directly with others in a more clinical setting. In addition to genetics, I have always been really interested in psychology and counseling, and I was surprised to discover a career that combined these two very different disciplines. As I learned more about genetic counseling, it seemed to be the career I had always dreamed of but never knew existed. 

Genetic counselors have many different roles, all of which require both scientific knowledge as well as strong interpersonal skills. Genetic counselors meet with patients and their families to help them understand their genetic risks or diagnoses. Genetic counselors also outline available testing options, interpret results of genetic tests, and support patients who are tasked with making difficult decisions about their health or the health of a loved one. 

Since genetic counselors explain technical information while emotionally supporting patients that have received difficult news, it is important to have both teaching and counseling experience. After shadowing three genetic counselors, I realized how important teaching ability is. Many times, the patients are coming from a place of little or no science background, which challenges the genetic counselor’s abilities to effectively communicate information in an understandable way. 

As an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, I was involved in the Academic Excellence Program (ACE). In this program, STEM students commit to additional study sections in a collaborative, peer-taught learning environment in order to meet the challenge of difficult science classes. This experience helped me improve my communication skills and learn how to tailor my explanations based on who I was talking to, their prior level of understanding, and their particular learning style. 

In addition to the teaching experience I gained while participating in the ACE program, I was a teaching assistant (TA) for a campus scuba diving class; I trained incoming lab aides in David Haussler’s genetics lab, and I tutored friends for various classes. These experiences all helped me learn what works in teaching others.

In addition to teaching, counseling experience helps genetic counselors be non-directive, which means explaining test results and giving information without letting personal opinions impact patients’ decisions. Being non-directive involves being aware of your own biases and assumptions while guiding patients with tools and information so they can decide what to do in a given situation. In order to gain non-directive counseling experience, I took an 80-hour certification course in Domestic Violence Counseling. We learned how to build rapport, use active listening techniques, cultural sensitivity and self-awareness whenever providing resources or support. After being certified, I worked as a Domestic Violence Crisis Counselor, which was an incredibly valuable experience. 

I used to believe that if you had genuine compassion, responding to the emotions of others in a helpful way would be intuitive. However, I now realize that feeling genuinely sensitive to the needs of others and being able to express those feelings in a productive way are two very different things. Working as a crisis counselor made me realize that many of these soft skills are learned, and continual practice is important because every person and situation you encounter will require a different approach.

Deciding on a Genetic Counseling Program

UC Irvine’s program really stood out to me due to its emphasis on gaining hands-on, clinical experience beginning in the first semester. I believe it is important to not only know the literature and academics of a profession, but also to have as much tangible experience as possible practicing those learned skills. I was also excited to see that students in this program had the ability to design personalized experiences based on their individual interests. 

Being part of the UC Irvine Medical Campus and Children’s Hospital of Orange County also gives UCI students access to amazing clinical opportunities on a routine basis. 

Opportunities for Genetic Counselors 

I love that the field of genetics is continuously advancing as we learn more about what types of conditions are heritable and as we develop more accurate and efficient testing tools for these conditions. Because of the constantly evolving nature of this field, I know that my love for learning will always be satisfied, and I am enthusiastic to begin this next journey.