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.”