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Holly Zimmerman to lead genetic counseling master's program

Image with caption: Holly Zimmerman

Holly Zimmerman

When Holly Zimmerman was an undergraduate student at the University of Southern Mississippi, she took a genetics class in her sophomore year.

Little did she know it then, that class would provide the impetus for a career that would make her, for a time, the only genetic counselor in the state of Mississippi, and now, a decade later, the founding director of the new UNMC master's in genetic counseling program.

About Holly Zimmerman

Holly Zimmerman has been named the inaugural director of the Master's in Genetic Counseling program, a new College of Allied Health Professions program in collaboration with the Munroe-Meyer Institute.

The program plans to accept its first class in fall of 2019.

Zimmerman, who will hold the title of assistant professor at UNMC, earned her master's degree in genetic counseling from the University of South Carolina in 2007.

Zimmerman has spent the past 10 years at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, initially serving as the only genetic counselor in her native state. In this role, she established genetic counseling services, gaining experience in general, prenatal, pediatric, and cancer genetics. In addition to her clinical roles, she was an instructor within the department of pediatrics and actively involved in the education of medical students, pediatric residents, and maternal fetal medicine fellows.

It is the perfect time for UNMC's College of Allied Health Professions and Munroe-Meyer Institute to jointly create the new program, Zimmerman said.

"Genetic testing is being implemented in almost every aspect of medicine," she said. "Genetic counselors can be the liaison between complex genomic medicine and patient care -- supporting both the provider and the patient."

The new two-year master's degree program, which will work closely with the Department of Genetic Medicine at UNMC's Munroe-Meyer Institute, should enroll its first cohort of students in the fall of 2019.

Right now, Zimmerman is involved in creating the program -- designing the curriculum, assessing the support needed, preparing to apply for accreditation, and other variables -- and she is excited by the expertise of her new colleagues at UNMC.

"Within the College of Allied Health Professions, the infrastructure support and enthusiasm are a dynamite combo," she said. "Everything from administrative assistance and student admissions to website design and brochures, all that is so well-supported. Similarly, the Munroe-Meyer Institute has committed their long-standing excellence in clinical training of genetic counselors. We can build on this expertise."

Kyle Meyer, Ph.D., dean of the College of Allied Health Professions, said the college is delighted to welcome Zimmerman to UNMC.

"The new genetic counseling program was founded on the principles of innovation and collaboration -- and Holly brings a strong record of both to her new role," Dr. Meyer said. "She is the perfect inaugural director."

In addition to the college and her professional mentors -- several of whom are running genetic counseling programs of their own -- Zimmerman is excited to collaborate with the genetic counselors at MMI, many of whom, she noted, are known nationwide for their expertise in the field.

"The curriculum development, educational content, and clinical supervision, are well supported at MMI," she said. "I knew that coming in -- it's one of the reasons that I accepted this position."

"Holly's expertise in program building, her knowledge as a service provider, passion and dedication are all remarkable, and she is designing a world-class training program," said Karoly Mirnics, M.D., Ph.D., director of MMI. "Simply, she is amazing, and she is the right person to lead our joint endeavor. This will be a unique program in many ways, and I am very excited that we will be finally able to meet the demands of our community for these services."

Zimmerman also took the position, she said, because she saw huge opportunities for genetic counseling students at UNMC.

"Any program director, any genetic counselor, when you talk about starting a program, wants to make sure that it's a sound program and that your graduates are the best and the brightest.

"Some places may want a program, but maybe don't know what it takes, or don't have the infrastructure in place," she said. "The huge benefit here, especially within the College of Allied Health Professions, is that with 12 other health profession programs, they collectively know what is needed to make a program successful. Coupled with the incredible clinical expertise within MMI genetics, there's a lot of support for how can we do this and how can we do it right and well, and really have our students thrive."

Genetic counseling

Genetic counseling is a profession combining medical genetics and counseling that supports individuals and families seeking information about how inherited diseases may impact their health.

Genetic counselors work with patients to offer guidance in genetic testing as well as interpretation of results. These providers also provide psychosocial support to patients who are navigating the complexities of genomic medicine and decision making.

Genetic counseling is a fast-growing field -- it's estimated that the number of genetic counselors in the U.S. will increase 28 percent by 2026 -- in part because of the incredible advances in genetic testing over the past decade.

As professionals whose training in both genetics and psychosocial sciences allows them to understand how patients make decisions, genetic counselors can look at the stresses patients face and explain the genetic test results in layman-friendly terms.

Counselors also can help providers optimize genetic testing, as providers are increasingly recognizing that genetic testing is a key component of precision medicine.

This increase in demand for genetic counselors is one reason why other community health organizations, including Children's Hospital & Medical Center, Nebraska Medicine, Blue Cross & Blue Shield, Boys Town National Research Hospital and Methodist Health System, are supporting the creation of the genetic counseling degree program at UNMC.

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