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Meet Our Faculty

Caroline Lieber

by Lisa W. Romano

In 2006, four SLC faculty members embarked on a study of people’s beliefs about heritability and genetics. Caroline Lieber MS ’80, director of the Joan H. Marks Graduate Program in Human Genetics, discusses the preliminary results of the study, which she conducted with Rachel Grob, associate dean of graduate studies; Linwood Lewis, psychology faculty member; and Marsha Hurst, former director of the health advocacy program.

SLC: What exactly did your study entail?

CL: We called it the “Family Stories” project, and we were looking at how people feel about heritability prior to genetic counseling. We interviewed 30 pregnant women from Westchester and Putnam counties, trying to find out, What role does heritability play in their family history? What do people of different cultures believe about inheritance? In what ways do people feel they can influence what is passed down to their children?

SLC: What was the most interesting thing that came out of the study?

CL: The science of genetics was less important to people than their ability to influence how their pregnancy turns out. People view genetics very broadly, and see it as a passing on of characteristics and traits and behavior in total, rather than the passing on of particular physical characteristics. For example, one woman thought her child would be an athlete because her husband was a soccer player. Another said she had inherited a “bad” personality from her father and grandmother, and she had physically moved away from her family so it would not affect her child.

SLC: What else did you find?

CL: We couldn’t come up with any sort of an ethnocultural profile. Each person’s responses were so different, and it became clear that you have to listen to each person individually and not anticipate responses based on their background.

SLC: Why were these findings important?

CL: They show that it’s important to acknowledge a client’s beliefs. We as scientists might think, “Well those beliefs are pretty silly—that’s not how science works.” But if that’s what people believe when they walk in the door, we have to modify our communication and show respect for what they believe, or they won’t listen to us. We have to figure out rather quickly, What is she concerned about? How is that different from what I might be concerned about for her?

SLC: What will you do with the results of this study?

CL: We’re developing a teaching tool, which will involve doing an interview, transcribing it, and then analyzing and understanding the themes that come out of it. We’re hoping to do a workshop at next year’s Annual Educational Conference to raise awareness about this narrative focus. The field is becoming so scientific that counselors feel they do not have time to explore the psychosocial side. Then counseling becomes a one-way conveying of information rather than a two-way, participatory interaction.

Lieber portrait

Photo by Don Hamerman

“People view genetics very broadly, and see it as a passing on of characteristics and traits and behavior in total.”

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