Driven Toward Diversity: MCW Student Works to Increase Representation in Field of Genetic Counseling

Driven toward diversity: MCW student works to increase representation in field of genetic counseling

Florida native and Ƶ (MCW) graduate student Christopher Estrella, MS, is on a mission to break the mold in genetic counseling. His identities are underrepresented in field of genetic counseling, where five percent of genetic counselors identify as male, according to a 2023 study brief published by the National Society of Genetic Counselors, and only three percent as Hispanic.

“I’m male and I’m a Spanish-speaking individual of Spanish descent,” says Estrella, who will graduate from MCW’s Master of Science in Genetic Counseling Program soon. “It’s nice when you have a provider who speaks your language. It’s nice to have a provider who maybe looks like you. I just hope to bring diversity into the field.”

In terms of what interests him about genetic counseling, Estrella, who enjoys traveling and exploring nature with his wife, says it’s the way it combines different fields of information.

“It brings together all the scientific knowledge of genetic conditions, inheritance, DNA and treatment for these conditions, and it meshes the psychological understanding of human connection, responsiveness, the psychology of interacting with people, and it brings it together into one field,” he says. “That’s pretty unique in the health care world.”

The path Estrella took to where he is today is pretty unique as well.

Road to Genetic Counseling

Estrella has assumed many roles through the years, each of which he was passionate about.

As a young teenager, he began working as a private tutor, teaching everything from basic reading to college-level math and physics over the years. He earned a scholarship to Florida International University, completing an undergraduate and master’s degree in biomedical engineering. Simultaneously, he became fluent in French, earning a second undergraduate degree.

His experience in college taught him that he enjoyed interacting with people more than research and development. With three degrees but no clear direction for the future, Estrella reached a standstill before learning of a teaching position from a friend. Leaning back on his experience as a tutor, he took the chance, teaching math to 260 students a year as the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. He calls it a tough time for educators but an experience that ultimately helped him.

“I feel that the only way you grow is by placing yourself in an uncomfortable position. It really pushes you outside of your boundaries and teaches you about yourself,” Estrella says.

Still, he was uneasy about his career path, not exactly sure what his future held. Since college, he knew he wanted to be in science and health care, but not as a doctor. Despite all his achievements in his 20s, Estrella once again felt lost.

A video he came across online changed all that.

“I came across a TED Talk from a genetic counselor on YouTube,” Estrella says. “I was enthralled. I automatically knew this was a field that I see myself in.”

Genetic counselors assess a patient's risk for inherited conditions, helping them make health care decisions by reviewing family histories, personal risk factors and genetic testing options.

After watching the video, Estrella dug deeper into the profession, ordering books on the subject, reading information online about the training and even reaching out to 30 genetic counselors across the US to see what a day in their profession looks like.

“I really wanted to make sure that if I transitioned to this, it was going to be the right fit and not something impulsive,” he says.

Initially, he was hesitant to apply, knowing how competitive genetic counseling schools are. In Florida, where he lived at the time, there was only one program that admitted just five students each year.

Excelling at MCW

Jennifer Geurts, MS, CGC, and Christopher EstrellaSupported by his wife and others, he decided to take the plunge, applying to schools in the Northeast and Midwest, including MCW. As part of the interview process, he met with Jennifer Geurts, MS, CGC, clinical genetic counselor and program director of the Master of Science in Genetic Counseling Program at MCW.

“[Geurts] really took the time to know me as a person and less as a number on an application. All of the leadership team was invested in who I was as a person,” Estrella said. “I loved it.”

He and his wife, who was still his fiancée at the time, made the 20-hour move to Wisconsin to begin a new life.

“Experiencing new places, new cities, new careers and new people helps me to learn as much about myself as I learn in a classroom,” he says.

There were many highs and some lows during his time at MCW, Estrella says. But he greatly appreciates the intimate setting that allowed him to build strong relationships with colleagues and professors, the access that being connected to nearby hospital systems at Children’s Wisconsin and Froedtert Hospital provided, and intangibles like getting tips on how to learn about the city from mentors such as Erin Syverson, MGC, CGC, assistant professor of genetic counseling at MCW.

He also appreciates the facilities at MCW, and most importantly, the school’s dedication to diversity.

“Even in MCW’s values that are plastered around the school, they really want to push for diversity in health care, which I think is so needed,” Estrella says. “I see MCW putting active effort into representation in the community and making sure they are putting some actions behind their words.”

As for his future, Estrella will soon begin a position with a genetic counseling program at the University of South Carolina. It’s the latest adventure for an individual who's full of them. Eventually, he says, he wants to be a program director and push diversity in the field further.

“My aspiration is to be the best director for future genetic counselors in training and help them also find their guiding voice the way that I was guided along my journey,” Estrella says. “I couldn’t see myself anywhere else.”

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