nicole choy

Nicole Choy Embraces Personal and Professional Uniqueness in KGI’s Genetic Counseling Program

Until they enrolled in Keck Graduate Institute (KGI)’s Master of Science in Human Genetics and Genetic Counseling (MSGC) program, Nicole Choy, MSGC ’21, had always felt out of place in the field.

“I think there is a homogeneous expectation of what a genetic counselor is,” Choy said. “The field is made up of 90% white women, and there’s even a meme amongst genetic counselors involving cardigans and statement necklaces. Some women can totally rock that, but that’s not me. The more genetic counselors that I followed on Twitter, the more I recognized that I didn’t look like them or fit that mold.”

What drew Choy to KGI was the strong support system in terms of offering mentorship and facilitating connections and the encouragement of diversity.

“I feel that KGI’s program is really supportive of being your own person and developing your unique role within the field of genetic counseling,” Choy said.

Born and raised in Hawaii, Choy received their bachelor’s in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry from Chapman University with a minor in Religious Studies. After doing an internship in cancer research, they decided that a career devoted to lab research wasn’t for them.

“Since high school, I had wished there was a job where I could talk to people about genetics,” Choy said. “Then during Christmas break my senior year of college, I was on LinkedIn freaking out because I didn’t know what options I had with a bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry, and as I was looking at jobs, genetic counseling came up.”

The more research Choy did, the more appealing genetic counseling began to sound as a career path, and they found a shadowing opportunity at a hospital in Orange County.

“I tried to get as much exposure to the field as I could, and the more I learned about the different avenues for genetic counselors, I saw how it really aligned with my passions,” Choy said.

So far, one of the highlights for Choy in KGI’s MSGC program has been presenting a case study at an annual conference for the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC). Additionally, Choy applied for and was awarded two grants through the NSGC.

Choy feels grateful for the support and encouragement of MSGC faculty, particularly Associate Program Director Emily Quinn—who helped with their thesis—and Assistant Director Melissa Randall Chan, who gave them the case study.

“Emily has been really wonderful,” Choy said. “I’m very grateful that I can tell her anything in terms of pressure points in the program, and she’s provided so much unconditional support. Melissa is another resource I’ve really been able to connect with. I think she sees the genetic counselor in all of us before we are able to see it—like she already views us as colleagues.”

In general, Choy feels that Quinn along with Program Director Ashley Mills has been very attentive to their feedback and concerns.

“All of the anxieties I had about coming to a new program are alleviated by the fact that if an issue was brought up to them, they would do everything in their power to make that adjustment as soon as they could,” Choy said.

Although Choy is sad that the pandemic ended bonding time with classmates prematurely during their first year at KGI, they feel that moving classes online has prepared them for working in telehealth.

“It was bittersweet, but KGI has done a wonderful job of utilizing the Zoom platform and making it an effective way of learning,” Choy said.

Choy grew up in Oahu, the main island and metropolitan area of Hawaii, which has access to hospitals and specialized services including genetic counseling. The neighboring islands, by contrast, have basic healthcare services but are significantly limited in terms of specialty services. However, telehealth has greatly improved access, particularly in underserved and rural communities.

“I’m grateful that much of my clinical rotation experience has been in telehealth because it’s prepared me for the future of our field and specifically my goals for when I move back home,” Choy said. “I would like to see a telehealth genetic counseling program developed for the neighboring islands.”

Choy’s long-term goal is to continue their thesis research with the native Hawaiian population, investigating ways to improve access to and awareness about genetic services.

“I also want to develop my own counseling style and improve my confidence in a clinical setting,” Choy said.

One of the challenges of being a genetics counselor is having difficult conversations in a limited amount of time. Thus, Choy’s goal is to educate patients on a counselor’s role so they have clear expectations while delivering tough news with empathy.

“Nicole is a bright, driven, and dedicated student who has excelled both academically and professionally in our program,” Quinn said. “Nicole is committed to working with underserved populations, as demonstrated by their thesis, which was supported by two prestigious student grants from the National Society of Genetic Counselors. Nicole is also a valued and active member of the KGI student body who has done numerous outreach projects to promote the field of genetic counseling.”