Passant Shaker

Passant Shaker Pursues Career in Genetic Counseling to Empower Others to Take Charge of Their Health

Since she was eight years old, Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) student Passant Shaker, MSGC ’23, wanted to be a pediatrician. However, during the last year of her undergraduate education, she learned about a medical field she had never considered—genetic counseling.

At the time, she was preparing for the MCAT and finishing up her bachelor’s. The timing was opportune, as she still wanted to pursue a career in healthcare but was having second thoughts about becoming a physician.

She began researching genetic counseling and what a career entailed. The more she learned, the more it appealed to her.

“I liked that I could still have patient encounters and that most of it would be patient-based,” Shaker said. “What also stood out, though, was the aspect of preventative care—that you could inform someone about their condition or possible condition before they had an episode that required hospitalization.”

This led her to KGI’s Master of Science in Human Genetics and Genetic Counseling (MSGC) program.

In her second semester, she is learning more about precisely how genetic counseling can empower individuals to take charge of their health. This is particularly important for underrepresented groups who may not have access to all the medical resources they need to thrive.

“I couldn’t tell you anything about my family’s genetic history,” Shaker said. “All I know is that I’ve had three grandparents who died suddenly—when they were young—and family members who got sick, but they didn’t know why because they couldn’t get tested. It’s a matter of not having enough knowledge on both the medical side and our side as individuals. So genetic counseling bridges the two.”

When it comes to increasing public awareness of genetic counseling and medical services in general, Shaker has learned that it’s important to make sure all pamphlets, advertising, and announcements are written at an upper elementary reading level. Adhering to this rule is particularly important for helping immigrants to navigate the healthcare system—something Shaker can relate to as a first-generation American.

Another component of accessibility is ensuring that genetic counseling services are affordable. Currently, many barriers exist when it comes to insurance coverage.

Shaker has enjoyed diving into these ethical issues and more in her classes with Associate Program Director Dr. Emily Quinn. Another topic they’ve explored is balancing the time constraints of a genetic counseling session (typically 30 minutes) with the ability to deliver sensitive information with empathy and ensure that no relevant information is omitted.

“For example, a procedure might have a one percent risk of miscarriage,” Shaker said. “To you, this percentage might seem pretty small, but for the patient, it might seem the exact opposite and could even be the make-or-break factor when deciding whether or not to undergo the procedure.”

As the child of Egyptian immigrants, Shaker has worked to balance her cultural identity with her personal identity.

“When my parents came to America, it was an entirely new world,” Shaker said. “So growing up, I remembered the typical pressures that first-generation children experience. As a little kid, my mistake was saying I wanted to be a doctor and not exploring other career options in healthcare as I got older.”

At KGI, though, Shaker is thriving with the support of faculty and classmates.

“Taking my classes alongside like-minded individuals who share the same passions and goals is reassuring and motivating, and it helps us get through the long days,” Shaker said.

“That stood out to me about KGI and the program directors—how they choose students who are perfect fits.”

Shaker is still unsure what field of genetic counseling she wants to pursue, though she is leaning toward pediatrics, as she has always enjoyed working with children. She would also like to reach out to underrepresented groups and individuals from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

“I would explain what genetic testing is and encourage them to consider it because they have a right to understand what’s going on with their health and to be able to detect any potential conditions before symptoms occur,” Shaker said.

She recently learned that Quinn worked as a genetic counselor for St. Jude’s—a leading children’s hospital that treats cancer and other pediatric diseases.

This was a pivotal moment for Shaker, connecting with her childhood dream of becoming a pediatrician for St. Jude’s and making her aware that the hospital also offered genetic counseling. She realized that even if she pursued a different career path, she did not have to abandon her dream completely.

“It’s amazing,” Shaker said. “I can still honor my dream and have a great career. It was like going full circle. I look forward to what will happen next.”

Quinn shares Shaker’s optimism.

“Passant is a dedicated and active member of not just the MSGC program, but also the greater KGI student body through her work as Student Government Genetics Representative,” Quinn said. “She is committed to increasing awareness of genetic counseling and access to care for historically underserved communities. Passant is incredibly bright, driven, and curious, with a perspective and voice that will propel progressive change within the genetic counseling profession.”