Alumni and Friends
As alumni of the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Human and Molecular Genetics, we value hearing about your success and your continued involvement with the department.
Here are a few stories about what some of our alumni are doing today.
Genetic counseling M.S. graduate Ashlyn Stackhouse will begin her career this summer at the North Carolina Children’s Hospital in Chapel Hill. (Photo by DeAudrea 'Sha' Aguado, VCU School of Medicine)
Master’s graduate Ashlyn Stackhouse reflects on the health and faith journeys that led her to a career in genetic counseling.
By Laura Ingles VCU School of Medicine email@example.com
Ashlyn Stackhouse has never been afraid of a challenge, whether it was leaving home as a teenager to attend a rigorous residential high school, braving a single-track trail on her mountain bike or pursuing a career in a complex, ever-changing medical field. But when she was less than a day old, the challenges she faced were much more fundamental. The doctors told her parents that if she made it out of the NICU, she may never be able to walk, talk or eat on her own.
Twenty-five years later, Stackhouse is now healthy and fully independent. As she prepares to graduate from the genetic counseling master’s program in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics, she is eager to provide the same compassion and support for her patients that she experienced as a child.
Defying the odds
Sixteen hours after being born seemingly healthy, Stackhouse
suddenly went limp, her eyes glassy and her mouth “open like a baby bird,” unable to latch and nurse. She was immediately transferred from the community hospital in her small hometown of North Wilkesboro,
North Carolina to Brenner’s Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem,
where doctors prepared her family for the worst.
“My parents were told, given my presentation, they didn’t think I would survive,” she said. “And here I am today. It’s a miracle and by God’s grace that I’m here.”
Stackhouse spent most of her childhood in and out of appointments with physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech pathologists, and the family traveled out of state for experimental treatments and clinical trials. Despite early predictions that she would likely rely on a wheelchair and a feeding tube for the rest of her life, she gradually gained muscle strength and independence from medical equipment.
While at her parents’ house in North Carolina at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, rewatching home videos put her achievements in perspective.
"Each year you could see that I was walking straighter, with more muscle tone and control, with slow, constant progression,” Stackhouse said. “Watching those videos brings me to tears to see how far I’ve been able to come.”
Aside from an abdominal scar at the site of the gastronomy tube she used until age 5 and some lingering muscle weakness in her face, the physical manifestations of Stackhouse’s medical history have all but disappeared. She has undergone comprehensive genetic testing that helped rule out many conditions, but she has never received a formal diagnosis, and the mysterious illness remains a part of her. The lifelong pursuit of untangling her story, coupled with her deep faith as a Christian, led her to what is already becoming a rewarding career as a genetic counselor.
“Medicine is a space where I can go toward people who are in pain, who are scared, who are facing uncertainty, who are searching for answers,” she said, adding that she has experienced how isolating medical hardships can be. “When looking to how Christ willingly came and entered into horrific suffering on our behalf, I’m called to step into areas of pain and suffering. The secured hope I have in Christ compels me to be present and serve those in need of care and comfort. I saw the most beautiful place that coalesced with my experiences and commitments was in genetic counseling.”
A human touch
Always drawn to science, Stackhouse knew by high school that she would pursue a career related to medicine. She first explored pharmacogenomics, the study of how genes affect a person’s response to medication, which piqued her interest because one possible explanation for her health issues was an adverse reaction to the hepatitis B vaccine she received at birth. Then as an undergraduate student at UNC Chapel Hill, she shadowed a genetic counselor.
"I saw these people coming in during one of the most critical times of their life to find answers to these medical mysteries, and it allowed me to coalesce my love for medicine as well as my love for people,” she said. “I feel like I can empathize with them without even having to tell my story by being inquisitive, being able to be silent and being a good listener.”
After graduating from UNC with a bachelor’s degree in biology and minors in neuroscience and chemistry, Stackhouse completed a one-year theology and health care fellowship at Duke Divinity School. The program encourages participants to “imagine a world in which practices of health care display the love and wisdom of God,” and she said the opportunity to blend her two passions around likeminded people was a blessing.
Stackhouse then found her place at VCU School of Medicine, where she began the genetic counseling M.S. program in the fall of 2020. She completed the first year of the classroom portion of the program virtually from North Carolina and eagerly moved to Richmond last summer for the second year of classes and clinical patient interactions she’d been waiting for.
“I find that a lot of our patients feel like they’ve been dismissed by other health care providers, so I let them tell their story,” she said. “In my own medical journey, I have known the impact of that humanness, and that connection is deeply needed in health care.”
As a genetic counselor, Stackhouse knows that she will not always be able to provide a diagnosis for her patients.
“For some people, there is a genetic contributing factor that helps make sense of their symptoms and sometimes we cannot identify one,” Stackhouse said. “Having a genetic counselor who can carefully evaluate for potential genetic conditions to help someone better understand their lived experiences can be invaluable.”
Tahnee Causey, VCU’s lead genetic counselor and the M.S. program director, said she has been continually impressed by Stackhouse’s empathy, humility and dedication to her patients.
“Sometimes students can become bogged down in the genetics portion of genetic counseling, focusing more on the science than on the human,” Causey said. “Ashlyn never loses sight of the fact that she works with patients and families who rely on her to help them understand genetic testing, a new diagnosis or management options. She balances the need to provide accurate information with compassion and kindness.”
After carefully considering four separate job offers during her final weeks at VCU, Stackhouse accepted a position as a pediatric genetic counselor at the North Carolina Children’s Hospital in Chapel Hill. For her and her family, returning to her home state to serve patients with stories like hers is a dream come true.
“We’re all so excited. This is what we feel like the Lord has led me to do, and it aligns with the path I’ve had to walk,” she said. “I am committed to providing the best care for my patients and their families and look forward to supporting them along a part of their own journeys.”
Jacquelyn (Jackie) Meyers is currently a post-doctoral research fellow in Psychiatric Epidemiology at Columbia University in New York City. Her work focuses on genetic and environmental mechanisms underlying chronic substance use disorders, using a variety of interdisciplinary approaches including molecular genetics, developmental psychology, and epidemiological methods.
Jackie moved to Richmond in 2007 to start the PhD program in Human and Molecular Genetics, where she had some of the most challenging and rewarding times of her life. Coming from a background in Psychology from the Florida State University, the rigorous coursework in molecular and clinical genetics taught by Drs. Shiang, Lloyd, Pandya, Elsea, Corey and Grotewiel, gave her and her cohorts (Drs. Peterson, Yan, and Chiplunkar) an excellent foundation for a career in genetics research (and many intensive study sessions fueled by Cafe Gutenberg, Urban Farmhouse, and Lamplighter coffee!). She found her academic “home” at Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, one of the world premier institutes for conducting research in Psychiatric Genetics. There, the faculty (Drs. Kendler, Riley, Neale, Maes, Eaves, Silberg, York, Webb, Aliev, Hettema, Aggen, Maher, Edwards, Latendresse, Wormley-Prom, Gillespe), and of course Jackie's advisor, Dr. Danielle Dick, provided an academic education where she learned the essential interdisciplinary skills both to conduct research in psychiatric genetics and to thrive in a modern academic environment.
After graduation, Jackie took this education to Columbia University in 2012, where she has worked with Dr. Deborah Hasin, a leading substance use epidemiologist. She has enjoyed this experience immensely, as a post-doctoral fellowship allows the time to focus on building your own unique program of research that will hopefully lay the groundwork for the rest of your academic career. Jackie recently submitted an independent research grant to the NIH to study systems-based genetic risk for substance use disorders in subgroups of the US population, and hopes to continue on to an academic faculty position.
Kayla Claxton is currently a prenatal genetic counselor for Maryland Perinatal Associates (MPA). This is her first job since graduating from VCU’s genetic counseling program in 2014 with her Master’s in Genetic Counseling. Kayla works at two office locations for MPA; Takoma Park, MD and Clinton, MD. Kayla works with maternal fetal medicine specialists, ultrasound technicians, dietetics specialists/nurses and medical assistants to help care for and monitor high risk pregnancies.
“One of my favorite parts of this job is building a relationship with the patients I see. I meet with many of our patients on their initial appointment at our office. Through follow up appointments with me, as well as their continued monitoring visits to our office, I get to know many of our patient’s pretty well. I love being a part of their continued care.”
In addition to seeing prenatal patients, Kayla hopes to one day work in a pediatrics setting, and in particular with children with Neurodevelopmental disabilities. “I came to VCU’s GC program with a background and some experience interacting with this population, but through the Virginia LEND (Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities) program offered at VCU, this type of work became a great interest and passion for me. I gained invaluable knowledge and experience through the multidisciplinary approach that LEND takes in training and preparing its students, and through the educators and other students that I got the chance to work with. I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to be a part of that program. It not only helped guide my education and thesis project while in graduate school, but it will also benefit me long term with my future career goals.”
Having clinical rotations in multiple locations throughout the state of Virginia allowed Kayla to gain experience working with individuals with various cultural, religious, socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. “In my Takoma Park office, I work primarily with a lower income population, and there is often a language barrier with these patients. Through my clinical rotations at VCU, I had experience working with interpreters, finding documents and patient resources in other languages, as well as learning about the cultural differences between a patient and myself. All of these skills are things that I will continue to use throughout my career.”
Santhosh Girirajan is currently an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Anthropology at the Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA. His laboratory studies the genetic basis of human neurodevelopmental disorders including intellectual disability, autism, and congenital malformation using high throughput genomic technologies.
"A major decision in my life was to move to Richmond from Michigan State University along with Sarah Elsea's laboratory in 2004 and that worked well for me" says Girirajan. "I think that I got an overall education in Human Molecular Genetics at VCU, learning from teachers with varied research interests, both in classrooms and in labs. I was fortunate to be exposed to research in developmental biology (Rita Shiang, Joyce Lloyd), statistical genetics (Ken Kendler, Lindon Eaves, Linda Corey, Brian Riley), Medical Genetics (Walter Nance, Arti Pandya), and model organisms (Mike Grotewiel, Jolene Windle, Jenny Wiley). He then quips, "The candidacy exams were tougher than other places that I have seen". But quickly adds, "Now, I think that is good, in a way, to raise standards and getting students to meet them!"
Girirajan graduated in 2008 and moved to Evan Eichler's laboratory at the University of Washington, Seattle, WA, to study the genomic basis of primate evolution and complex human disease. He started his new laboratory in July 2012 at the Pennsylvania State University and attributes his training for helping him handle his new responsibility -- "My mentors told me to take everything that I have learned so far and apply it".
In addition to directing his new research lab, Girirajan loves teaching and motivating students in the "practice of science". Girirajan intends to come back to Richmond and visit VCU and his teachers. "It is highly likely to bump in to a current VCU student or an alumni in human genetics meetings".
Gretchen Oswald is currently a senior genetic counselor in the Pediatric Genetics Clinic at John Hopkins University, in Baltimore, MD. She specializes in connective tissue disorders and skeletal dysplasias.
"I graduated from the genetics program at VCU with a master's degree in genetics counseling," said Oswald. "During my time there, I feel like the counselors and physicians really helped me to build a strong foundation of counseling and clinical investigation/history-taking skills that has aided me in my current job in an adult/pediatrics genetics clinic at the John Hopkins University. There was exposure to diverse populations, not only in terms of diagnoses (connective tissue disorders, inborn errors of metabolism, skeletal dysplasias, and chromosome anomalies) but also in terms of the social, emotional and socioeconomic status of the patients."
In addition to her many clinical duties, Oswald also assists with training of genetics fellows and medical students, serves as supervisor for the genetic counseling students from National Institutes of Health/John Hopkins, University of Maryland and Howard University genetic counseling programs and is involved in clinic coordination and administrative duties.
"I especially appreciate the 'behind the scenes' education I received -- learning how to send out labs, run clinics, schedule patients, work with insurance companies," she said. "These practical skills are a major part of everyday practice and it is invaluable to get exposure to them as a student. The program has a great balance of clinical, educational and research requirements."