Dr Lorraine Cowley – Genomic Counsellor in the NHS

What led you to your career as a genomic counsellor?

I started my career as an oncology nurse and I became a genetics counsellor in 1997.  I was interested in genetic susceptibility to cancer because in my practice as an oncology nurse, patients were asking me questions about this and I didn’t know how to answer them.  I was employed in genetics because of my oncology experience at a time when genetic susceptibility to cancer was newly identified.  At that time, mismatch repair genes causing Lynch Syndrome and the breast and ovarian cancer susceptibility genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 had all been recently discovered.

Do you feel as though your postgraduate degree has provided you with skills and expertise you now use in your current profession that you otherwise would not have developed?  If so, what are they? 

Yes, I definitely feel that I have valuable knowledge gained through my PhD about how genetic testing for cancer susceptibility can change relationships in families and how once a genetic susceptibility to cancer has been identified in a family, having a test can be viewed as a moral pressure.  This knowledge has made me more attuned to those pressures in families.  I now feel more skilled to discuss the possibility of a moral agenda in genetic testing and I try to make sure that all options, including declining a test, are acknowledged for their moral value.  This is particularly relevant if I sense that a patient feels reluctant about knowing their genetic status but feels obliged to be tested.

Do you think people with postgraduate degrees in Biological Sciences have an ‘edge’ that means they are particularly employable and/or sought after in your profession?

I would say that the shortlisting criteria for access to the genomic counselling scientific training programme is slightly weighted in favour of those with a postgraduate degree in Biological Sciences, however, those who have a good first degree in a relevant subject and excellent caring, life or work experience, counselling skills and a passion to commit to a genomic counselling career in the NHS are highly valued.  What I’m trying to say is that a good genomic counsellor trainee candidate who has an ‘edge’ will have excellent rounded skills and experience and a postgraduate degree in Biological Sciences may be a part of that ‘edge’.

What would you like current postgraduates to know about the career paths they could possibly take?

I don’t know all of the possible career paths that a postgraduate might take but I can strongly recommend Genomic Counselling as a worthwhile, satisfying and rewarding career to anyone who wants a patient-facing role in the NHS.  In my 23 years as a Genomic Counsellor I have always felt that I am making a difference, helping people to make informed (in the fullest sense of the word) decisions about knowing their genetic risks and helping them to manage those risks through screening, symptom awareness and lifestyle.  Importantly for me too, the rapidly shifting and advancing technologies have meant that I have never felt bored and I have always been fully engaged with the social, ethical and clinical challenges that genomic technology presents.  Genetic/genomic counselling is one of the few areas of medicine and patient care where novel discoveries are quickly implemented into clinical practice and this always feels as if I am working at the ‘cutting edge’.

Additionally, anything else you care to mention about your work…

What I have always, and still do particularly love about my career is the ability to mix clinical work with research.  Since 2008 I have variably (depending on grant funding) worked as a clinical academic.  My PhD whetted my appetite for patient perspective research, and I continue to pursue funding opportunities to do this.