Rosa Moreno

Passion for Genetic Counseling Motivates Career Change at Age 50

Twenty-five years after earning a bachelor’s degree in biology, Rosa Moreno, MSGC ’21, listened to a conversation that would change her life. While working as a certified medical interpreter at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, she heard a neurologist describe a profession completely unknown to her: genetic counseling.

Moreno immediately sought to learn more. Within two weeks, she started taking prerequisite courses for a genetic counseling program. Then she began applying for admission.

“At the time, UC Irvine had the only program, and I didn’t get admitted,” says Moreno, who was already working full time, volunteering at a domestic violence counseling center, and raising a teenaged daughter. “I wondered whether I should continue, whether this was just a crazy idea. I’d been out of school so long. But something inside me told me I really wanted this. And I set myself up for encouragement: My daughter, siblings, and coworkers told me what I wanted to hear. That kept me moving through the prerequisite classes and application process.”

Moreno had reason to believe she could become a successful genetic counselor. After graduating from the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1991, she had launched an English language school in Mexico City, where she often counseled the businesspeople who studied there. Though she worked in a different field, Moreno also continued to read about science.

“It was always there with me, and I was always interested in genetics,” says Moreno.

“I love helping people, and if there’s a need or gap in the genetics counseling profession for Spanish speakers, I’m there to fill it.”

Her experience as a medical interpreter reinforced the idea that she could contribute to genetic counseling. Moreno had seen parents, especially those who were immigrants, leave newborn screenings without fully understanding how to care for a child with a metabolic condition, despite the best efforts of healthcare providers to convey information.

“With family issues, social issues, and language barriers, this can be difficult,” says Moreno.

When she learned from a genetic counselor at her workplace that Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) had introduced the Master of Science in Human Genetics and Genetic Counseling (MSGC) program, Moreno was ready to apply again.

“If you have that desire stirring in you to pursue this profession, it’s never going to go away,” she explains. “It’s who you are.”

Now 50 years old, Moreno has become one of the first residents of Oasis KGI Commons, KGI’s new campus housing, and spends her weekdays immersed in the MSGC program while continuing to work in Los Angeles on weekends.

“I feel support from every single professor in the program,” says Moreno. “It’s an environment of support, and that makes a huge difference.”

She is particularly pleased to learn from faculty who are also genetic counselors and that her courses are practical.

“Every single class teaches us what we’ll be seeing and doing and need to be mindful of when we see patients,” she explains. “We go from learning about gene expression to role playing being with a patient. They give us everything.”

At the same time, notes Professor of Practice and MSGC Program Director Ashley Mills, Moreno offers a valuable professional perspective in class that reflects her background as an educator and a medical interpreter.

“She is able to contribute to conversations in a very relevant way, and with so much depth,” says Mills. “You also feel her warmth and compassion. She will be the kind of genetic counselor who will be able to connect with patients and their families.”

After completing the MSGC program, Moreno looks forward to providing direct patient care but also wants to focus on community outreach, sharing her knowledge of genetic information through Spanish-language workshops, and encouraging Spanish-speaking high school and college students to enter the profession.

“I’ve always had the desire to be involved in more than what my job may be,” says Moreno. “But I’m hoping to be in direct patient care for a long time and to have an impact on one patient at a time, whether they speak Spanish or not. My goal is to give patients what they deserve: a talk with a well-informed genetic counselor.”