Matthew J. Thomas

Matthew_Thomas_-_Become_a_Genetic_Counselor.jpgJohns Hopkins University/National Human Genome Research Institute, 2007

Current Specialization: Cardiovascular Genetics





Tell us about your first exposure to genetic counseling.

I didn’t know what genetic counseling was until my sophomore year of college. One week, in my “Readings in Biotechnology” course, we were assigned to read the book, Curing Cancer: The Story of the Men and Women Unlocking the Secrets of Our Deadliest Illness. The book discusses the discovery of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. In one chapter, the author introduced the health care professionals responsible for relaying the genetic diagnosis of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer to patients – genetic counselors.

What specialty(ies) of genetic counseling do you work in? How did you come to choose this specialty?

I was born and raised in Virginia Beach, VA, and my wife is from Charlottesville, VA, so when I had summer genetic counseling rotations I targeted the University of Virginia(UVA). After completing grad school in 2007, I was fortunate enough to have my first job with the same group I rotated with during the summer. I joined the medical genetics clinic within the Pediatrics Department at UVA. I saw patients of all ages for a variety of diagnoses ranging from babies with birth defects, to young children with autism spectrum disorders, to adults at risk for inherited cancer conditions. I enjoyed the variety of patients I would see every day. I was constantly challenged to learn new conditions.

In 2014, I created a new position at UVA in cardiovascular genetics in which I see patients with, or at risk for, inherited heart and vascular conditions.

Describe the path that led to your choice of a career in genetic counseling.

After reading the aforementioned book on curing cancer, I asked my professor about genetic counseling. He didn’t know any more about it than I did. Since I went to a college that did not have an associated medical school or major hospital nearby, there were no genetic counselors within an hour’s drive. Therefore, I contacted genetic counselors who practiced near my hometown and arranged to shadow them when I was on winter break. After sitting down to talk to counselors about their jobs, and observing them in action, I realized that the job was a perfect fit for me. The next step was to figure out how I was going to become a genetic counselor.

I used the NSGC website to learn more about what it takes to become a genetic counselor. I visited individual graduate school programs to review requirements. I modified my course schedule -- I decided to double-major in psychology in addition to my biotechnology major. I applied to summer internships, and spent back-to-back summers doing research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

What role did your family members play in choosing a career?

They did not have a direct input on my career choice but my mother was a librarian at a community college and my dad a professor of mass communication and journalism, therefore, they both emphasized the value of education.

What was your family’s reaction to your choice of career?

Both of my parents were incredibly supportive of my career choice. They had a feeling I would pursue a job that involved supporting others, particularly one in the health care field.

How did you explain genetic counseling and your reasons for pursuing this as a career to your family?

I wanted a job that allowed me to balance my desire to work directly with people on a one-on-one basis with my interest in the cutting-edge field of genetics. I wanted a job where I would have the opportunity to learn something new every single day. Although the job would always keep me busy and on my toes intellectually, I also knew I would be able to maintain the work-personal life balance that is very important to me.

Tell us about any influential role models or mentors and the ways in which they impacted your education or decision to enter this field.

During one of my undergraduate summer research internships, I worked with a physician who was investigating the genetic basis of type II diabetes, Dr. Francesco Celi. Dr. Celi was a research physician who not only motivated me to work harder, through his example and seemingly never-ending work ethic, but he also helped me realize the professional path that was best suited for me.

I did not meet my genetic counseling role model until I started graduate school. My genetic counseling program director, Barb Biesecker, is the person who inspired me to challenge myself in school every single day.

What was your experience as a student in your training program? Do you think that your experience was influenced by your background or gender?

Graduate school was undoubtedly one of the most challenging periods of my life, but wound up being one of the most rewarding. Although I never experienced any external pressure from my grad school program or personal life based on my racial background, I internally felt more pressure to perform well and maximize the opportunity I had in this small and competitive field.

I vividly remember the relief I felt after successfully completing my first year. After finishing that first year, I finally felt comfortable enough to buy a bumper sticker and t-shirt with the school’s insignia for the first time. That was the moment I finally let it go and felt like I belonged where I was, and had the confidence that I would continue to succeed there.

What do you enjoy most about being a genetic counselor? What do you enjoy the least?

Making a positive difference in patients’ lives. In my experience, patients and their families with genetic conditions are incredibly resilient and naturally are capable of meeting their day-to-day challenges. But for those who are struggling, or simply need help in one small area, it’s rewarding to be able to help them understand and adapt to the challenging situations they’re facing.

One of the challenging aspects of being a genetic counselor is how unfamiliar the general population is with what we do. I quickly learned how to explain my job to any new people I meet. Fortunately, I feel as though there is recognition of my role, and how I help patients is recognized where I work.

What direction(s) do you think the profession of genetic counseling will take in the future?

I think genetic counselors will become more important for specialists as genetic and genomic testing continues to improve patient care. Genetic counselors will also play a role in educating other health care providers like doctors and nurses about how genetics can help patients.

Why do you feel it is important to genetic counseling for more ethnically diverse students to enter the field? How would greater ethnic diversity impact the profession?

There are likely unmet needs from underrepresented patients we haven’t even recognized yet in our profession. Having a more diverse work force will hopefully increase the likelihood of us not only recognizing these needs, but addressing them.

If you could offer one piece of advice to students considering genetic counseling as a career, what would it be?

Find a genetic counselor (You can search for them on the NSGC website) and interview and/or job shadow them.