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Gene Leader: Alumna Maps a Career in Genetic Counseling

Biology alumna Judith Benkendorf has dedicated nearly 30 years to the field of genetic counseling.

Date: 9/14/2009
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Provided by Judith Benkendorf
Working in a biology research lab as an undergraduate in the 1970s was a great experience, Judith Benkendorf says, but for a different reason than expected.

Conducting research with Professor Emeritus Lawrence Erway, Benkendorf helped understand genetic pigment mutations in mice and the role manganese might play in correcting associated behavioral problems.

Judith Benkendorf.
Judith Benkendorf, seen here at a meeting in March, is a UC alumna who turned her biology degree into a genetic counseling career.

“It was a neat experiment, but the problem was that I spent a lot of time in the animal room,” Benkendorf says. “I realized that I didn’t like working in the lab and being isolated all day.”

That research lab taught her an invaluable lesson: she doesn’t have the temperament for basic science research.

“It sealed for me that I wanted a career that was interactive and people oriented.”

So how did she end up in the research-based field of genetics?

After the Cleveland native received her bachelor’s in biology from University of Cincinnati and McMicken College of Arts and Sciences in 1978, she earned her master’s from Sarah Lawrence College, the nation’s first program to offer a graduate degree in genetic counseling. Since her time there, Benkendorf has spent her career in various facets of genetic counseling, an arena that allows her to stay in the field utilizing her interpersonal skills—and staying out of the animal room.

“I’ve done a number of things with my genetic counseling degree,” Benkendorf says. “Being trained in the science of medical genetics and the art of counseling has offered me a versatile skill set, which has been readapted into different work settings.”

She’s been in the field for nearly three decades, and her resume is just as diverse as it is long. Clinically, Benkendorf has counseled individuals about prenatal loss, regarding incidents like stillbirths or infant death, as well as hereditary cancer risks. She was on faculty at University of Miami for six years and has been teaching at Georgetown University since 1986 in their Schools of Medicine and Nursing.

Other accomplishments include serving in leadership roles of the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC), the American Society of Human Genetics, the American College of Medical Genetics and the American Board of Genetic Counseling. She has even been on the staff of the Energy and Commerce Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, working on legislation about public health and biomedical research.

Today she is the special assistant to the executive director at the American College of Medical Genetics. She is also the project director for the National Coordinating Center for the Regional Genetic and Newborn Screening Service Collaboratives, which is housed at the college.

Clinician. Educator. Policymaker. Not too bad considering she’s one of the first students to graduate from UC into the field of genetic counseling.

“She has been a tireless worker for the betterment of human genetics and how it contributes to the benefit of society,” says Professor Emeritus Carl Huether, a biology professor who taught human genetics to Benkendorf during her time as an undergraduate at UC.

“The field of genetic counseling has just blossomed tremendously over the past 20 to 30 years, and Judith has been one of the individuals to make that happen,” he says.

She’s been at the frontline of genetic services, she says, because she has practically grown up with the field. Even the flagship NSGC wasn’t created until a year after she left Cincinnati.

“Back when I was at UC, human genetics was the study of rare, mostly single-gene disorders, like muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis. Now we’re uncovering the complex genetics of common diseases,” she says. “We can look at genetic contributions to high cholesterol, heart disease or cancer. There are certain signatures of conditions clustered in families that give genes a bigger role.”

She continues, “What I love about my job is that it’s been cutting edge. I love being a pioneer in a new profession and being able to ask research questions that have never been asked before.”

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