A look to the past with an eye toward the future

The Genetic Counseling Graduate Program enters a new era with a leadership transition, new educational offerings and growing demand for graduates.
February 11, 2022

The Genetic Counseling Graduate Program at the University of Minnesota is known for its strengths in research and training thanks in no small part to the work of Bonnie LeRoy. She helped launch the program in the late 1980s and made a lasting impact in countless lives as director of the program. LeRoy retired last year. You can read a Q&A with LeRoy here and watch a video of her colleagues and friends talking about the impact she made here.

Heather Zierhut, a 2006 graduate of the program, stepped into the director role in 2020. She is a associate professor in the dept of of the Genetics, Cell Biology and Development faculty whose research focuses on psychosocial and public health implications involved with the provision of genetic counseling services. Zierhut is also 2022 president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors. She shared her goals and plans as the new director of the program. 

What attracted you to step into the role as program director? 
I really love to do a lot of different things and that’s a typical day for a program director. The role of program director is both strategic but also lots of the day-to-day operations. The position is exciting and challenging work that allows me to shape how the higher education system operates to support the training of prospective genetic counselors, genetic counseling students, and genetic counseling researchers. 

How have things in the Genetic Counseling program changed since you started here?
The structure of the program changed with a team of instructional leads and we’ll be hiring a new Assistant Program Director to fill my old position soon. Our new program assistant, Abrahm, is infusing creativity, efficiency, and helping us stay organized. We created an Alumni Committee and will start a new Richard King Fund Genetic Counseling Research Committee later this year. 

What goals or opportunities do you have as program director over the next few years?
Our strategic plan for the program has four pillars - leadership, diversity, innovation, and self-awareness. We are working to strengthen, grow and diversify the genetic counseling profession and field in Minnesota. Our program is a leader in genetic counseling research and training. We hope to create new educational opportunities and ask significant research questions that will pave the way for the next generation of genetic counselors. I look forward to seeing the new undergraduate minor in Genomics & Health take shape as well as support the first two joint program students who are pursuing a PhD in laboratory genetics and genomics and a masters degree in genetic counseling.  

What does the University community and beyond need to know about the Genetic Counseling program?
Genetic counseling is one of the fastest growing healthcare professions. Our graduates support individuals and families with navigating the complexities of genetic contributions to health and associated genetic testing. Due to the many interactions of genetics in all areas of medicine, genetic testing, and genomics, our program hopes to be a resource for information, collaboration, and outreach for the University and beyond. There is much to learn about genetics and how it impacts our society. We hope to learn from each other.