A photo of a woman from the shoulders up standing outside. She is standing in front of bushes and the entrance to a building.
Alanna Varca Gentile completed the clinical genetics certificate program and will begin the genetic counseling M.S. program at VCU in the fall of 2024. (Photo by Arda Athman, VCU School of Medicine)

Class of 2024: After completing the human genetics certificate program, Alanna Varca Gentile is translating personal experience to practice

Varca Gentile, who previously earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from VCU, now will pursue a master’s degree in genetic counseling.

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Medicine had been the plan since high school for Alanna Varca Gentile. Motivated by her own experiences as a patient, she enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University in VCU Acceleration, a program for incoming freshmen interested in health care, and confidently began the pre-medical track.  

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit during Varca Gentile’s junior year, she began questioning whether medical school was the right fit.  

“I really enjoyed my time in the Acceleration program,” Varca Gentile said. “But I think the pandemic really made me start to ask a lot of questions about what I really wanted and what I was mentally prepared for.” 

Still interested in medicine but unsure of her plan, Varca Gentile said she confided in a professor only days before graduating with her bachelor’s degree in psychology from the College of Humanities and Sciences in 2021. The professor suggested genetic counseling — a field she’d never heard of.  

“I didn’t even know what clinical genetic counseling was before that,” Varca Gentile said. “I went on an internet deep dive and attended phone call informational interviews. I had a really good gut feeling about this path.” 

In 2023, she enrolled in the Certificate in Clinical Genetics program, one of five certificate programs offered by the VCU School of Medicine to enhance students’ qualifications for advanced degrees, continued education and highly specialized fields. Varca Gentile said the academic exposure and networking opportunities solidified her interest in the niche, competitive field and helped her get into the genetic counseling M.S. program at VCU, which she’ll begin in the fall. Many of her credits from the certificate program will count toward her master’s.  

She also received the Genetic Counseling Equity Scholarship, which is awarded to a qualified applicant who demonstrates a commitment to serving populations that are historically underprivileged or underserved by the field of genetic counseling. 

“I’m hoping to get involved in outreach for genetic counseling,” Varca Gentile said. “I want to help bring more diversity to the field, mentor students from underrepresented backgrounds and work towards making the field a more accessible service to patients.” 

A deeper understanding

Genetic counseling, according to the National Society of Genetic Counselors, is a relatively young field at a little over 50 years old. The practice combines the scientific analysis of human genetics with patient consultations. Counselors assess patients’ risk for inherited diseases, educate families about genetic disorders like sickle cell and Huntington’s and present options on how to adapt to findings. This combination of science and psychosocial work was what attracted Varca Gentile to the field. 

“It's a very empathy-heavy role,” Varca Gentile said. “You’re taking the time, establishing a relationship and walking patients through some really scary topics.” 

As she prepares to become a genetic counselor, Varca Gentile draws on her own experiences as a patient. A concussion during high school caused a traumatic brain injury with long-lasting effects she still deals with today. Despite following typical concussion protocols, she has experienced regular headaches and migraines since the injury. She also developed postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, which is also known as POTS, from the injury, which affects the autonomic nervous system, causing heart rate and blood pressure dysregulation and resulting in dizziness, light-headedness and heart palpitations.  

“My brain processes very differently than it did before my TBI,” Varca Gentile said, noting that the chronic pain impacts her capabilities as a student, and she’s grateful for the disability services and accommodations through the Division of Student Affairs and Division for Academic Success. “POTS is sort of a daily struggle, and it adds a lot of fatigue and brain fog to my life.”  

Over the past nine years, Varca Gentile’s interactions with medical professionals have been mixed, inspiring her to be a counselor who leads with empathy and advocates for her patients. Her POTS and vertigo diagnoses came after a long string of appointments with different specialists, which she said gives her a unique perspective on the “diagnostic odyssey” many patients go through. When the headaches became a nearly daily occurrence, she said it took longer than it should have to be referred to a neurologist, which made her feel unheard by her doctor.  

“A lot of people are dismissive of pain and struggle, especially when it comes to young women,” Varca Gentile said. “I’m excited to be a female provider and be a voice for my patients, especially for people who often go dismissed.” 

Varca Gentile’s empathy doesn’t stop with her future patients. After graduate school, she hopes to work at a university-affiliated hospital, such as VCU Health, to pay forward the support she received during the certificate program. The Association of Genetic Counseling Program Directors reports that only 59% of applicants matched into genetic counseling M.S. programs in 2024, making it one of the most competitive fields in health care.  

“I know how hard getting into genetic counseling school is, and I want to help in the way people helped me,” Varca Gentile said. “It’s a small field, but it’s a great community.” 

Heather Creswick, the clinical genetics certificate advisor, said the genetic counseling faculty is excited to have Varca Gentile join the program in the fall. Creswick described her as a driven, curious hard worker who connects well with those around her. 

“I hope Alanna finds joy in engaging with her patients and that she is surrounded by colleagues who inspire and guide her,” Creswick said. “I hope that she will embrace learning, stay open-minded and get involved with the profession. She has great potential to be a leader in this field.” 

For now, Varca Gentile said she is excited to become a “four-time Ram” and continue her education at VCU, learning under many of the same instructors she did during her certificate program. 

“I made great connections during the program that I am so incredibly grateful for,” Varca Gentile said. “I wouldn’t have gotten in without them.” 

This article was originally published on the VCU School of Medicine’s website.