Dual Degree Student Experience

Afifa, a class of 2015 graduate, shares her experience in the dual degree MS in Genetic Counseling/MPH in Public Health Genetics program.

Afifa, an alumna of the dual degree programI have always loved genetics – a perfect combination of biology and math. I always wanted to work with people. I always knew being a doctor was not for me. Then I found genetic counseling, which was the perfect coalescence of everything I thought I wanted in a profession. It allowed me to work with patients in a clinical setting, afforded me to chance to participate in research opportunities, and made room for my love of exploring interpersonal social and familial relationships. While researching the field of genetic counseling, I found that the future of genetics and the state of Public Health in our society were unavoidably intertwined. My interest in Public Health grew and developed as I learned more about health care in the United States and across the globe. I developed a passion for educating myself about the best utilization practices associated with genetic testing in order to bring genetics to the forefront of health care in an affordable manner.

When searching for a genetic counseling graduate program to attend, the University of Pittsburgh stood out to me because its program was housed within a Graduate School of Public Health rather than within a medical school. Because of this unique quality, Pitt offers genetic counseling students the ability to graduate from a dual degree program – earning a Master of Public Health degree in Public Health Genetics alongside a Master of Science degree in Genetic Counseling. Given my interest in public health, I immediately saw this as a benefit. I also knew that a better understanding of how the profession of genetic counseling and the field of genetics fit into the larger public health picture would make me an asset when applying for jobs across different disciplines. 

My experiences at Pitt supported my decision to enter the dual degree program. Though all students in Pitt Public Health are exposed to many aspects of public health through the required interdisciplinary coursework, I was given the opportunity to delve deeper into each of the six other specialties offered by Pitt Public Health. I valued this experience because it allowed me to see the significance of each of these aspects of public health through the lens of genetic counseling. I was also able to see the field of genetic counseling through the lens of public health. For example, in Behavioral and Community Health Sciences, I was able to design a study aimed at the exploration of the impact of whole exome sequencing on families. I utilized the skills I learned in Biostatistics in the analysis of my thesis work data. Finally, I developed a deep interest in policies related to federal spending associated with genetic testing and the care of genetically diagnosed individuals through the education I obtained in Health Policy and Management. These additional perspectives provided inexplicably valuable perspectives that I might have otherwise missed out on learning.

One of my passions is helping to educate the general population and non-genetics health care professionals about the role of genetics in health care. My exposure to different aspects of public health through the dual degree program has made me better equipped to achieve goals related to this passion. Through the dual degree program, I was able to interact with students in many other disciplines. Many students in MPH programs are professionals seeking additional support and education about public health. This allowed me to interact with doctors, nurses, lawyers, and students in many other professions. This exposure gave me the opportunity to learn more about the way that individuals in those professions may understand genetics. In particular, my thesis work with mitochondrial disease in an Amish community incorporated my educating the general population about genetics. This experience was eye-opening and allowed me to see our profession through the eyes of a medically underserved population. 

I believe that I am more successful in my counseling role today because of the education imparted on me through completing the dual degree program. I have been able to bring the experiences I had and knowledge I gained into the clinic on a daily basis. I am a more cognizant provider when it comes to spending public health care dollars on genetic testing. This cognizance has allowed me to share these thoughts with other providers in my role. I have used the multidisciplinary skills gained to help develop a cardiac genetic testing workflow that has streamlined the testing process and allowed providers at our institution more effectively offer genetic testing. I am currently serving on our Institutional Review Board in a role that allows me to ensure that non-genetics providers are properly and effectively educating research participants about genetic components of their research. Overall, I think that my participation in the dual degree program has opened doors professionally that I may have never before considered.