Alicia Wolfson

Breaking Barriers to Genetic Counseling

CLAREMONT, Calif. – When Alicia Wolfson, MSGC ’21, enrolled in prerequisite courses for a master’s program in genetic counseling, her science background consisted of a single introductory biology course taken as an undergraduate many years ago. But she had interacted with genetic counselors while working as a study coordinator and research administrator at UCLA Health and was eager to become one of them.

“I made a conscious career change after working for more than 12 years after college,” says Wolfson, who completed both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communication studies at California State University, Northridge. “All of my jobs, all of my personal life experiences, just came together and made sense when looked at through the lens of genetic counseling.”

The study Wolfson coordinated, which focused on educating the Deaf community about hereditary cancers and the benefits of genetic counseling, had introduced her to the field. Intrigued by what she learned about genetics, she attended informational workshops and shadowed genetic counselors at UCLA Health before making a final decision.

“I realized that genetic counseling was very similar to a lot of the work I’d done in the past and was naturally drawn to: jobs that work with people and provide a level of education and resources,” she says.

“I’d found a passion and a purpose in life, career-wise, and I knew that I would make a great genetic counselor because I bring something different to the table than most genetic counselors.”

Her differences extend beyond having an educational background in communications rather than the sciences. She is also Deaf.

When Wolfson discovered the Master of Science in Human Genetics and Genetic Counseling (MSGC) program at Keck Graduate Institute (KGI), she saw that it would be well suited to her needs.

“They use a flipped classroom approach, which is fantastic for a Deaf person,” says Wolfson. “It takes care of some of my accessibility issues. I can access the video lessons when captioned and process them at my own pace.”

Wolfson also appreciates the personal attention she has received from Assistant Director of Student Affairs Andrea Mozqueda, who serves as KGI’s disability coordinator, and other staff members from the moment she first visited the campus.

“The staff was very warm and friendly and prided itself on thinking outside the box,” she says. “I needed a program that could do that because ‘inside the box’ thinking was not going to work for someone who doesn’t have the same learning style or access to information as the majority of the students.”

Wolfson’s first months at KGI have reinforced her decisions to both pursue the MSGC program and become a genetic counselor.

“I’m finally in an environment where science and human interaction are combined, and that makes it much more interesting and exciting for me to learn,” she says. “Even more so, I’m enjoying learning how to work with patients and to be aware of the factors to consider when relaying information, discussing risk factors, and helping them figure out what they want to do with the results of their genetic tests.”

Once she becomes a genetic counselor, Wolfson plans to work with all types of patients, including those who are Deaf.

“Deaf patients are largely underserved, and not many people are available who can offer them direct communication without an interpreter,” she says. “I want to help promote more diversity in genetic counseling and change the way the medical field views Deafness and disability.”

Even after knowing her for only a short time, Professor of Practice Ashley Mills, the director of the MSGC program, can see that Wolfson has the attributes to become a successful genetic counselor.

“There may be barriers, but she doesn’t allow these to stop her and follows through with what she wants to do,” says Mills. “She has a calming demeanor, a gentle manner, that coupled with her experiences in life, makes me think she is going to connect very well with patients and clients. She is able to establish trust and rapport, and she does it in a profoundly natural way.”