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As Genetics Enters the Mainstream, MSGC Student Chloe Chatwin Clarifies Common Misunderstandings and Educates the Public

Although conversations about genetics have entered the mainstream, the general public still needs to understand the science of genetics. Chloe Chatwin, a student in Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) ‘s Master of Science in Human Genetics and Genetic Counseling (MSGC) program, has made it her mission to educate the public.

“Concepts in genetics are super abstract and can be very difficult to grasp,” Chatwin, MSGC ’24, said. “There’s a lot of misinformation around basic concepts, and in many cases, people ascribe way too much or too little value to them.”

One common misunderstanding involves the use of the word “gene.” People may believe they have the “gene” for a particular disease or condition.

“A gene is just a segment of DNA that codes for something, and most of the time, a person has all of the genes,” Chatwin said.

A few years ago, Angelina Jolie publicly revealed that she had tested positive for a BRCA1 gene mutation. Many people misunderstood the implications, correlating the gene with cancer rather than the mutation.

“Since then, many people are afraid of the BRCA1 and 2 genes,” Chatwin said. “However, these genes help us if they’re working properly.”

Direct-to-consumer testing companies such as 23andMe have further brought genetics into the mainstream.

“There are benefits, as it helps people recognize the value of our genetic information,” Chatwin said. “But there are a lot of ethical pitfalls when it comes to for-profit companies of this nature. When they collect your data, you essentially sign away your entire genome. This should be alarming, but most people don’t understand the implications.”

Another issue is that their tests are not medical-grade, but people often treat them as they are.

“People tend to treat a variant found on 23andMe like a diagnosis,” Chatwin said. “In reality, these testing companies’ methods are not sensitive enough to be considered diagnostic testing. A diagnostic test must verify anything found on a direct-to-consumer test before medical action can be taken, but most people don’t realize that.”

To clarify these misunderstandings, Chatwin started an Instagram page (@genes.n.tees.creations) dedicated to genetics and genetic counseling topics.

“It’s a way for me to reach people from diverse backgrounds because social media is everywhere,” Chatwin said. “I feel that sharing information from my perspective, as someone who studies genetics—but in a palatable way—is making an impact. With something as complex as genetics, teaching people in bite-sized formats is challenging. But it’s taught me how to communicate more effectively.”

She also feels that anyone entering the field of genetic counseling is doing their part to decrease misinformation.

“Every time you meet with a patient, you’re going to learn about their misconceptions,” Chatwin said. “You can then help them to understand genetics better so they can be more empowered to make their own decisions.”

Patient advocacy is one of the essential qualities that drew Chatwin—who comes from a long line of healthcare professionals—specifically to genetic counseling.

“Genetic counseling is a unique field in that it deals directly with healthcare, but it’s very patient-focused and teaches people how to make their own healthcare decisions. The patient advocacy and education aspect of genetic counseling appealed to me.”

She majored in Genetics, Genomics, & Biotechnology as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University. This program helped her to build a strong foundation and provided many opportunities, including working at a plant and fungus genetics lab for two and a half years.  

So far, she has thoroughly enjoyed KGI’s MSGC program, where she is wrapping up her first year.

“The faculty and my cohort are amazing, and I consider myself blessed to be able to interact with all of them,” Chatwin said. 

She appreciates features that differentiate KGI from other genetic counseling programs, including the fact that it offers a pharmacogenomics class and a class specifically on cancer genetics.

“I am grateful that KGI is not associated with a hospital system, as it allows us to rotate in many different locations and clinics,” Chatwin said.

Additionally, Chatwin likes the structure of KGI’s program, with the first year primarily dedicated to content while the second year is devoted to rotations. 

“Having all the coursework beforehand, I feel I can contribute more effectively to the patient appointments once I start my rotations,” Chatwin said.

Some faculty who have mainly stood out are MSGC Program Director Emily QuinnMaster of Science in Human Genetics and Genomic Data Analytics (MSGDA) Program Director Dr. Barbara Fortini, and MSGC Associate Director of Research Dr. Nicholas Gorman.

“Emily is the sweetest, most amazing person, and I adore her with my entire soul,” Chatwin said. “She does a phenomenal job teaching our genetic counseling classes. I also love Dr. Fortini. She does a great job of explaining complex concepts in a digestible way. Although some people are intimidated by how ridiculously intelligent she is, she is one of the kindest, most approachable people.”

Dr. Gorman is one of the main MSGC program admins.

“I’m so grateful for how passionately he advocates for the students,” Chatwin said. “He does a great job of making sure we’re aware of everything so we can get the most out of our KGI experience while teaching us a lot of skills that other programs don’t in a way that prepares us for the rest of our time here and as genetic counselors in the field.”

Chatwin remains flexible regarding her long-term goals but is considering pursuing a specialty in neurogenetics or metabolomics.

Quinn admires Chatwin’s dedication to the field.

“During Chloe’s time at KGI, she has distinguished herself as both an exceptional student and classmate,” Quinn said. “In her work as a student government genetics representative, Chloe is an ambassador for her classmates and works tirelessly to advocate for the larger genetic counseling profession through outreach efforts and events. She is held in high esteem by her classmates and professors alike.”