Meet Eleanor Griffith: Founder and Genetic Counselor of Grey Genetics

( 3/26 – when the internal Grey Genetics team asked Eleanor a few questions. Enjoy!)

1. What is your academic background?

I was an English major at a private liberal arts school. (St Olaf College.) I dabbled a lot in French and Spanish–then stumbled across genetic counseling and loved the idea of working with patients one-on-one in a field that was constantly growing and changing. I graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 2011 with a M.S. in Human Genetics and an Advanced Certificate in Public Health Genetics/Genomics. 

2. Why are you passionate about genetic counseling?

I love that genetic counseling is so personal and that it acknowledges that every case is different, every perspective is different—and valid. It’s really a patient-centered profession. There’s no “right answer” in genetic counseling when it comes to a patient’s decisions.  

3. What is one thing you wish people knew about genetic counseling?

That genetic counseling isn’t all about testing. It’s about learning what your options are. Learning how genetic testing may be useful to you—and how it may not be useful to you. For some people, the psychosocial support that genetic counselors can offer is the most critical piece. For others, it’s information about the limitations of testing or what the implications of results might be for family members. Every patient comes in with different concerns and priorities and different levels of understanding. Genetic counseling is tailored to a patient’s specific situation.

4. Are there any genetic counselors that inspire you / you particularly admire?

I’m a big fan of both Bob Resta and Katie Stoll. Both are genetic counselors who write for The DNA Exchange. I’ve always loved Bob Resta’s posts. He’s always very thoughtful, critically thinking about what’s new but also open-minded. The first time I heard of Katie Stoll was when she was quoted in a 2012 NYTimes article related to concern about conflict of interest in genetic counseling, with genetic counselors increasingly being employed by laboratories. The attitude in genetic counseling has generally been that genetic counselors have the patient’s best interest in mind–regardless of where their paycheck is coming from. While I’ve definitely found that to be true, I also think the way that genetic counseling has increasingly become a service tacked onto genetic testing is problematic. Katie’s insight was prescient in many ways. She also wrote one of my favorite posts on the DNA Exchange—a 2013 post from when NIPS was still newer, calling attention to how the test results were frequently being misinterpreted and how prior probability needed to be taken into account. (Don’t get a genetic counselor started on prior probability.)

I also have a lot of admiration for Heather Hampel, a genetic counselor who has been a huge champion creating greater awareness of Lynch syndrome. She’s one of the most well-published names on Lynch syndrome, but I most admire how in her clinical practice, she has gone above and beyond to make cascade screening happen (follow-up testing of appropriate family members after a Lynch mutation is identified in the family). She’s also a wonderful speaker. (Not so common among researchers and academics!)

5. What are some of Grey Genetics’ main objectives and where do you envision this platform going?

My objectives for Grey Genetics start with building a private practice telegenetic services company—working directly with patients but also working with physicians who want to order genetic testing for their patients. Genetic counseling has typically consisted of a lengthy pre-test session +/- a lengthy post-test session.  I think this is ideal. It’s a lot of where my job satisfaction has come from. But I don’t think it’s a realistic or practical solution to the real needs for genetic counseling (and testing!). There’s lots of buzz now about CRISPR, gene therapy, healthy exome screening… exciting stuff! Unfortunately, we’re still doing a pretty poor job on a national level with even just the three priorities of the Public Health Genomics dept of the CDC: BRCA, Lynch and Familial Hypercholesterolemia. Through partnering institutions, I’d like to help make genetic testing and appropriate counseling (which can also be done by an informed physician, nurse, or other healthcare provider) more widely available–especially for these three highly actionable genetic diagnoses.

Longer Term Vision: My goal is for Grey Genetics to become a platform for genetic counselors to be able to offer independent genetic counseling services to patients and/or healthcare provider offices. Telehealth as a delivery model makes certain efficiencies possible that just aren’t possible in hospital setting. Genetic counseling is also becoming increasingly specialized, and I see telehealth as a way for a genetic counselor with great expertise in a particular area to be able to consult with patients who may not happen to live right near where she/he lives and works.

6. When you’re not reading, writing, or thinking about genetics, what are some of your favorite spare-time activities?

Reading about anything but genetics! Mostly fiction, but also non-fiction. After all, I did go into genetics in large part because I was drawn to the patient narratives. Watching movies, er.. now I guess TV shows. Hanging out in Brooklyn. Hiking? Traveling… Friends and family. I have 10 nieces and nephews. I never see them enough. I’ve never been a great one for having hobbies, but I guess mostly my life fills up with stories and people.