The genetics class at Hillsdale. Ben Block | Collegian.

Two years after alumna Nancie Petrucelli graduated from Hillsdale College in 1992 with a degree in biology, she applied to the University of Cincinnati’s graduate program in genetic counseling. At the time, only 14 of these programs existed, and each accepted no more than seven students. Despite the odds, she got in.

Petrucelli is now a senior genetic counselor at the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, Michigan, and works as an associate professor of oncology at Wayne State University. On Monday, she addressed Professor of Biology Bob Miller’s genetics classes, outlining a field expanding so quickly because of developing technology that the 32 genetic counseling programs operating today still fail to meet the demand for professionals.

“Genetic counselors are a lot like detectives,” Petrucelli said. “We’re looking for certain clues in family histories that might be linked to a mutation transmitted through the genes.”

After genetic counselors investigate their patients’ DNA for genetic mutations — flagged by an unusual number or structure of chromosomes, a change in a single gene, or a change in multiple genes — and analyze the alteration’s possible consequences, they generate a list of preventative measures and solutions addressing the problem. While this is the overall goal of all genetic counselors, the field splits into many subcategories. Counselors can specialize in cardiovascular, genomic, metabolic, neurological, oncological, pediatric, pharmacogenetic, and prenatal counseling. Petrucelli’s focus is cancer.

“This talk gave students an idea of what implications genetics has and what kind of jobs are out there,” said Frank Steiner, natural science chair. “This is not just a field up in an ivory tower. Genetics is not just applied to populations but to individuals.”

Steiner said the level of human interaction involved with genetic counseling gives professionals a chance to mix the humanities with the sciences. Petrucelli, for example, took several psychology classes at Hillsdale and said genetic counseling allows her to exercise her interest in helping people approach challenges.

But this human element also creates ethical complications.

“Genetics has the bad reputation of eugenics,” Petrucelli said. “We aren’t trying to create a master race. Our job is to educate patients.”

To illustrate this, Petrucelli said when counselors in the prenatal field make a prediction of a child’s genetic condition based on parental DNA, they must present the parents with all possible next-step options. This includes prenatal diagnosis through the amniotic fluid, conception with a donor egg or sperm, adoption, or pregnancy termination.

“Genetic counselors are not allowed to give any bias in their counseling,” junior biology major Lydia Siepel said. “Regardless of their own beliefs, they have to understand that the decision stands with the patient and it is their job to inform them, not lead them to a decision. I think it is critical to expose students to these topics, even though they are difficult to talk about.”

Petrucelli said she encourages scientifically inclined students to consider genetic counseling as a career.

“I came to Hillsdale knowing exactly what I wanted to be was a veterinarian, which ended up not being what I wanted to do at all,” Petrucelli said. “Keep an open mind, and be open to other opportunities.”