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Meet Our Students: Lindsey Alico MS ’11, Gillian Blaber MS ’11, and Ny Hoang MS ’11

by Katharine Reece MFA ’12

Human genetics graduate students Lindsey Alico MS '11, Gillian Blaber MS '11, and Ny Hoang MS '11 call it the "Guatemala thing"—whenever they get stressed about things of little consequence, they take a moment to remember their recent trip to Guatemala, which helps them center on what's really important. And what tends to be most important is GenetAssist, the nonprofit organization they created a year ago to help communities without access to genetic counseling. Over spring break, the GenetAssist trio visited three major cities in Guatemala (funded by an anonymous grant) to evaluate the possibility of introducing genetic services there.

SLC: How did you come up with the idea of GenetAssist?
Gillian: In class, we were learning about all these countries where there are genetic disorders and no genetic counselors to help guide people through their diagnoses or even to provide testing. So we were thinking, "Why is there no Doctors Without Borders for genetic counseling?" We decided to just do it, and we turned the organization into our thesis projects to get it all done.

SLC: Tell us about your trip.
Lindsey: We toured several hospitals throughout Guatemala, in both rural and urban areas. We met with doctors of varying specialties to gain a better understanding of the health care system, especially prevalent conditions and currently available services. We met with geneticists, surgeons, directors of medicine, and families to assess their knowledge of and beliefs about genetics. We also went to a local market, hiked a small mountain, took a tour of a macadamia nut farm, and hung out at Lake Atitlan.

SLC: What was the most significant moment for you?
Ny: We were in a hospital, and we got to see the patients instead of just meeting with physicians. There was this one girl who was only a couple months old, and she had hydrocephalus, which is fluid build-up inside the skull. We'd all studied the condition in our classes, but seeing it was a completely different experience. I realized in that moment, "We need to be here." The people we met could have such better medical care if they had the right resources.

SLC: What does the future hold for GenetAssist?
Gillian: We still have a lot to go over. It's been a process of talking with Guatemalan doctors to evaluate the best short-term and long-term projects.

Ny: I'm going through all the surveys to put them into a database, and we're also looking into grants. At this point, we will require some sort of funding to move forward.

SLC: Did this project change your final months at SLC?
Gillian: We were talking about how it makes everything seem different when you get back. Your whole perspective on the world changes.

Ny: Now I think, which problem would I rather have—I have an assignment due tomorrow, or I can't get health care?

Lindsey: I woke up every day in Guatemala and just thought: I am the luckiest girl in the world to be here and to be in a position to help other people. Our experience also makes me look at underserved communities in the US differently. There is still so much to be done here as well.