Opinion | Matthew Burgess: What I Learned from the NSGC 2020 Annual Conference

Although this was officially my second National Society of Genetic Counselors Annual Conference, it was my first as a delegate. Last year, I attended as an exhibitor and only attended one talk; I went and listened to my mate from Australia speak about research findings from his PhD. 

For those of you who don’t know, NSGC is the peak body representing genetic counselors (GCs) in the USA. Each year they hold an annual conference, and like most conferences this year, it was virtual. So, I turned on my out-of-office on my work email, strapped myself in, and dove straight into the start of this five-day virtual conference. 

I knew before attending that I would have to write a blog about what I learned. I thought I would write about newly discovered genes or conditions, potential new treatments, best practice genetic counseling processes from the latest research, etc. Being a senior genetic counselor with many years of experience and teaching genetic counseling at a university, what flabbergasted me was what I actually learned about genetic counselors. As the success and appropriateness of multidisciplinary care increases, and believe me, I really do love working with the scientists and other associates here at Baylor Genetics, it’s the genetic counselors I love working with the most. Genetic counselors are my tribe. 

Maybe every NSGC conference is similar and my key takeaways from my very first NSGC are redundant for others. But here is what I learned, or was reminded of, about genetic counselors at NSGC 2020:

  • Genetic counselors are impressive. When our outgoing NSGC President, Dr. Gillian Hooker, gave her presidential address, I just felt proud. Gillian listed all of our achievements and it really was impressive. From lobbying congress for state licensure to advocacy work to research, I couldn’t help reflecting on how involved GCs are in many different areas of human genetics.

    Gillian was followed by Sara Riordan MS, CGC President-elect, who also spoke beautifully. Sara used an analogy of the growth of a tree to the growth of a person that I loved. Sara also spoke of superpowers and how as GCs, we use our superpowers to help our clients. By the end of her talk, finishing with a quote from Professor Albus Dumbledore, I legitimately had a tear in my eye.

  • Genetic counselors are resilient. I was really unsure how the NSGC would create a high-quality conference virtually, but they did it.
  • Genetic counselors are connected. Being a virtual conference, I was worried it would be just like watching TV. But, it was great to speak with and connect with other GCs on Twitter and having the instant gratification of tweeting a speaker and them responding straight away.
  • Genetic counselors are socially aware. There was a very interesting talk about cancer and polygenic risk scores (PRS). PRS is actually a very exciting new area of clinical genetics. However, a lot of the research is conducted with Caucasian participants, which does not represent the diversity of our nation. 
  • Genetic counselors are embracing diversity. Diversity is becoming increasingly spoken of as necessary and important. It was great to learn more about the Minority Genetic Professionals Network.
  • Genetic counselors are open to embracing change. There used to be a stigma involving GCs working in “non-traditional” roles, such as my current role in the genetic industry, and an animosity between clinical genetic counselors and non-clinical genetic counselors. For a while, there was a real sense that industry GCs were not as good as clinical GCs. Now with more than 50% of GCs working in non-clinical roles, I have found this professional friction significantly decreasing. GCs have a great skill set and, bit-by-bit, other professions are seeing how we can add value to their teams and organizations.

I loved my first NSGC annual conference. And I love knowing it won’t be my last. 

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