Release Date: November 8, 2023
BUFFALO, N.Y. – In response to the growing demand for genetic counseling services nationally and regionally, the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo has hired a program director to launch a master’s degree program in genetic counseling.
Lindsey M. Alico, a Western New York native who, until recently, was co-director of the genetic counseling program at Sarah Lawrence College, the nation’s oldest and largest in the field, has been hired to implement and direct the genetic counseling program at UB.
Alico, a clinical assistant professor, is a board-certified genetic counselor who earned her master’s degree in human genetics from Sarah Lawrence in 2011. She will guide the UB program through accreditation.
Approved by the New York State Education Department and SUNY, UB’s program is pursuing accreditation by the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling, which will allow graduates to sit for the American Board of Genetic Counseling certification exam. Genetic counselors who pass the exam are granted the Certified Genetic Counselor credential, which is required to practice in most areas.
The idea for the program evolved out of UB’s Genome, Environment and Microbiome Community of Excellence (GEM), which advances genome science to help empower people to better understand personal health issues.
Alico first learned about genetic counseling, then an emerging career field, when as a teenager she took an elective course in genetics taught by Stacy Rominger, a biology teacher at Orchard Park High School. “She mentioned genetic counseling in one of the classes and it immediately sparked my interest,” Alico recalls.
After studying genetics at the University of Rochester, she contacted genetic counselors at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center to see if she could shadow them. She ended up working with them on a research project, making the weekly commute from Rochester, an experience that helped prepare her for her graduate work.
While earning her master’s, Alico was awarded competitive fellowships in cancer genetics at Yale Cancer Center, and neurodevelopmental and related disabilities at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
She has since done genetic counseling at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Queens, N.Y., and at Myriad Genetic Laboratories Inc. She also co-founded a nonprofit organization, through which she collaborated with the Ministry of Health in Guatemala to promote public awareness about the importance of folic acid during pregnancy.
Alico sees her career trajectory as coming full circle. “I didn’t plan to leave Western New York, but I couldn’t become a genetic counselor here,” she says. “My goal was to get the skill set that I needed and bring it back home on a large scale.”
“Genetic counselors are increasingly critical members of the health care team,” says Jennifer A. Surtees, PhD, professor of biochemistry in the Jacobs School, associate dean for undergraduate education and STEM outreach and a main architect of the UB program.
Genetic counselors are experts in genetics and genomics; they provide patients with information and guidance about inherited diseases and conditions that may affect them and their families. Patients who have received a disease diagnosis may be referred to a genetic counselor to determine if there may be a genetic component to it; couples that are expecting a child or are trying to conceive may also see genetic counselors.
Both Medicaid and Medicare will reimburse for genetic services when a patient is at risk for a hereditary disease or condition.
Unlike other members of the health care team, explains Alico, genetic counselors don’t directly diagnose or prescribe. Instead, they help interpret complex genetic and genomic information for patients and empower them to make decisions about their health that are best for them.
“We are trained to facilitate decision-making,” says Alico. “We aren’t going to say ‘you need this genetic test.’ Our job is to evaluate and communicate genetic risk information so you can decide if you want the test or not.”
Once a genetic test is done, the counselor explains to the patient what the results mean and helps them adapt to next steps. “We spend a lot of time with patients in order to build trust,” says Alico.
In addition to their advanced training in genetics and genomics and risk assessment, genetic counselors develop expertise in specialized communication so they can provide counseling that is culturally, socially and ethically sensitive.
The UB program is being developed with a strong interdisciplinary emphasis, reflecting input from faculty throughout the university, including the Jacobs School, the School of Nursing, the School of Public Health and Health Professions, the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, the School of Law, the School of Social Work, the Graduate School of Education and the College of Arts and Sciences. It will be administered by the Jacobs School’s Office of Biomedical Education.
Right now, genetic counseling is mostly focused on exploring a genetic cause after diagnosis of disease, but Alico says the goal is for genetic counselors to reach more patients when they are well.
“If we do this right, patients will have genetic counseling before they develop cancer or another common condition,” she says. “As testing evolves, we won’t always be assessing a problem and saying, ‘is this genetic or not?’ Instead, we will be using genetic and genomic information as a preventive tool.”
Part of Alico’s responsibilities will include working with UBMD Physicians’ Group and Great Lakes Cancer Care Collaborative to support their genetic counseling services and to provide the program’s students with the training opportunities they need. In addition, to increase awareness of the importance of genetic counseling and family medical histories among physicians, students in the program will be embedded with Jacobs School medical students for some aspects of training.
“What’s important to me is that Buffalo is not left behind,” Alico says. “There are many people who could benefit from genetic counseling services and they should all have access to the care they need in our own backyard.”