By Tierney Gallagher
In 2008, Clemson became the first university to offer a doctoral degree in healthcare genetics. Now, several years later, the PhD program is again making new strides as it celebrates its first two graduates and looks toward a bright future in research and collaboration.
What is Healthcare Genetics?
Clemson’s PhD in healthcare genetics is an interdisciplinary program that offers students the opportunity to study across more than six disciplines, including genetics, healthcare, psychology, political science and policy.
The highly collaborative structure of the program approaches scholarly work in both genetics and healthcare. It offers specializations in translational research, interventionist work, and ethics and health policy. Students are prepared to work with genomic aspects of health problems; formulate health promotion, disease prevention and treatment strategies; enhance ethical guidelines and health policy; and research and develop practices incorporating knowledge on genetics.
Graduates with a PhD in healthcare genetics are suited for careers in genetics education and research, clinical or medical research, pharmaceutical coordination and education, epidemiology, policy and bioethics, and more.
Origins of the Program
The program was conceived when a group of nursing faculty in the College of Health, Education and Human Development sought to bring a doctoral program to their department and found an overwhelmingly positive response from the University and the surrounding community.
Dr. Julie Eggert is the coordinator for the program and a professor in the School of Nursing. When determining the focus of the degree, Eggert said the faculty considered the abundance of new roles and jobs for people in the field of healthcare genetics. Subsequent collaboration with other genetics departments on campus helped to build an interdisciplinary program that combined the strengths of their specialties.
The healthcare genetics program was approved by the state Commission on Higher Education and accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in early 2008. The program enrolled its initial students in the fall of 2008 and its first two graduates completed the degree this past December. Two more students plan to graduate in 2013.
Diverse Topics, Diverse Students
Since 2008, the program has grown to include 19 current students. It admits up to six students per year, with a maximum of 24 enrolled during a four-year period.
Students in the program come from a variety of disciplines, including nursing, life sciences, biochemistry, psychology, genetic counseling, bioengineering and more. Despite their different backgrounds, what they all have in common is a special interest in genetics and a desire to be in the healthcare environment.
According to Eggert, it is this passion that unites the students. “When our students come into the program, they’re interested; but after the first semester, they’re enthusiastic,” she said. “Then, as they get further into the coursework and their experiences, they really have a desire to take the information and impact healthcare.”
Bohua Wu, a second year student in the program, was originally a pediatric physician in China before she came to study at Clemson. She hopes to use the knowledge she gains about healthcare genetics to utilize personal medicine to treat and provide therapy to patients.
“We can learn from this program because it is not only very practical, but it also addresses a very new era in the United States,” Wu said. “As we know, this is the first healthcare genetics program in the nursing field, and through this I think all nurse practitioners and other healthcare professionals can expand genetic knowledge to apply to patients.”
One of a Kind
The healthcare genetics program is not only the first of its kind in the nation, but also one of a kind here at Clemson. Several departments in the University focus on genetics, but their emphasis is on plants and animals. This program is distinct because it concentrates on human genetics.
Despite their differences, the working relationships between these departments have helped to make the program richer. Because healthcare genetics grew from related departments and other well-established Clemson research partnerships, it is able to offer the unique interdisciplinary focus that is its strength.
“This program includes not just genetics, but also all of the areas related to healthcare,” Wu said. “For example, we can use knowledge on bioinformatics, public health and the environment to examine effects with genetics.”
New Impacts at Home & Abroad
The program has grown not only because it is so unique, but also because it is becoming an increasingly important area to study. Incorporating genetics into healthcare has the potential to impact scientific advancement and introduce new ways of providing healthcare and conducting research. Applying genetics to clinical practice can help enhance early prevention and the detection and treatment of disease.
However, the program does not just have implications for the healthcare field as a whole. There is also a lot of opportunity to serve the surrounding region. Eggert explains that one of the desires in establishing this degree was to focus on the healthcare needs and disparities in South Carolina. Close partnerships with local organizations and hospitals have helped the program to keep this emphasis on community.
“We’re learning that there are many diseases that are caused by genetics,” Eggert said. “Of course there’s still the influence of the environment, but we’re learning more and more about how to take better care of patients and individuals and therefore our communities in South Carolina.”
Progress & Future Plans
Since its conception only a few years ago, the healthcare genetics program has been able to make great progress in a short amount of time. Students and graduates have produced multiple publications, are starting to prepare proposals for research grants, and have successfully established a variety of collaborative relationships. Additionally, they developed the Healthcare Genetics Society, a student organization on campus, and have started to organize DNA day activities they hope to host on an annual basis.
And this is only the beginning. According to Eggert, they look forward to continuing the program’s success by reaching out and impacting the medical field as a major player in healthcare genetics.
“People in the medical field right now do not know and understand genetics, so we’re trying to take this information and help educate those currently in the workforce,” Eggert said. “This way, they may be able to identify issues related to genetics and healthcare. The goal would ultimately be prevention, but we’re not there with very many problems yet.”