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College introduces new course with a genetics-focus


In a time when medicine is becoming increasingly personalized, and the role genes play is more crucial, the Michigan State University College of Nursing is offering its students a new genetics-focused course.

In the spring of 2021, a group of MSU students completed the college’s new genetics-focused course that was several years in the making.

Spearheaded and taught by Assistant Professor Mary Smania, the course evolved from discussions that began after she attended a genetic research institute in 2015. Upon examination of the undergraduate curriculum within the college, genetics was partially covered throughout, but there was not one course where it was the sole focus.

Smania said a lot of information about genetics has come about in the past 10-15 years, and many health care professionals need more education on the topic.

“We have our own set of genes that are with us for life,” Smania said. “As time has gone on, things like medications have become specific to our genome. Our risk is affected by our genome. Cancer has been in the forefront.”

She coordinated with peers on improving faculty competency in genetics after she attended a short course on integrating genetics and genomics in curricula with a focus on nurses, advanced practice nurses and physicians assistants in 2017.

“Mary came back with such enthusiasm to share and educate her peers,” said Kathleen Poindexter, the college’s assistant dean for undergraduate programs and faculty development. “She studied the curriculum and identified where there were gaps in terms of genetics content threaded through the undergraduate curriculum.”

From there, discussion of adding a genetics-focused course to the curriculum took off. Assistant Professor Catherine Clarey-Sanford said when deciding how the curriculum should look, a similar course was offered for RN to BSN students in fall 2020.

The elective for undergraduate students was offered in the spring 2021 semester and will continue to be offered in future springs. Case studies were presented in lectures and some were assigned to students. They also created a pedigree, which Smania said can be helpful for seeing families in a different way. A pedigree, which is like a genetic family tree, explores traits and gene mutations that have been passed down. Students would look at a pedigree and share what they might expect to be an outcome.

“I wanted to impress upon (the students) that it’s constant learning,” Smania said. “Not only looking at the patient, but their families and they need to be sensitive to that.”

Poindexter said students recognized the ethical implications when discussing risks and information that patients may or may not want to know.

“I was taken aback by how well they identified the boundaries and what and when not to discuss,” she said. “They know when to identify issues and have tremendous respect for the ethical dilemmas.”

After the course was completed, Clarey-Sanford said a qualitative research study involved interviews with students to understand how the course went and if they were using any of the knowledge they gained. An additional follow up is planned to learn how the students used the knowledge in their practice.

“It was amazing to see the excitement and knowledge base of the students interviewed and their strong belief it should be mandatory for all students.” Clarey-Sanford said. “We need to be on the forefront and I’m proud to say we are.”

Christina Vu, BSN ‘21, was part of the first cohort and enrolled because she had taken genetics in high school and wanted to further her knowledge. One of her favorite parts of the course was learning about pharmacogenetics, or how a patient’s genetics respond to medications.

“We’re taught in other classes that grapefruit juice can interact with a lot of medications and this helped me so I can explain why that applies,” Vu said.

Vu now works as a clinical registered nurse and said the course was an opportunity to evaluate situations, such as ethical dilemmas, that one might not typically encounter.

“When you build upon your own education and foundation, you’re able to better provide for and educate patients,” she said.