Career Corner

Amy Schmitting White ’00
By Rachel Gates,
Career AssistantAmy Schmitting White, graduate of ’00, wanted to be a genetic counselor from the moment she came to Lawrence. She heard about Lawrence’s amazing biology department and decided to visit. She met her would-be husband at a leadership conference sponsored by Lawrence, had a campus tour, and thought it would be perfect. Lawrence was only thirty minutes from home.

While attending Lawrence, Amy delved into psychology as well as biology. She learned how genes interact with the environment to affect an organism’s behavior and overall wellbeing. She loved developmental biology with Professor Wall and discovering the “little stuff” in molecular biology with Professor DeStasio. In Organic Chemistry, Amy learned to use the mass spectrometer, a device she operates in her career today. The classes Ms. White took to minor in psychology, major in biology, and obtain an interdisciplinary study in biomedical ethics taught her the analytical, child development, and ethical knowledge she utilizes in her field.

It is extremely difficult to get into the Genetic Counseling Master’s Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; only five to ten people are accepted each year. To distinguish herself and gain experience in the field, Amy completed a summer internship at the Waisman Center for Clinical Genetics at UW-Madison. Working with a clinical geneticist, Amy designed an advance directive for children with lethal genetic diseases. She received honors, magna cum laude, for her thesis describing her work. Amy was accepted and achieved her Masters of Science degree in Medical Genetics and Genetic Counseling from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. To become board certified, Ms. White took the American Board of Genetics exam, the same test that MD physicians must pass.

If Amy could describe her workplace in one word, she would say it is “unique.” At the Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee, she works in pediatrics with children who have genetic defects. Amy usually spends about two hours with each family per day to discuss everything from the developmental history, medical history, and pedigree, or the three-generation family tree, to blood tests and weight of the child. At birth, the child is tested for twenty six different conditions. When a genetic defect is discovered, the Genetic Counselor breaks the news to the family and discusses future planning.

If a child has Down’s syndrome, or Trisomy on the twenty first chromosome, Amy discusses the prognosis; the child will have a seven year old level of cognition, can usually hold a part-time job, and may have an early onset of Alzheimer’s. Someone with Phenylketonuria has a buildup of the enzyme phenylalanine that causes mental retardation unless placed on a strict diet. Amy cares for these types of children and helps their parents to provide the right diet, lab tests, and address any special needs. These genetic diseases can be scary, especially to the parents, but Amy helps provide the right treatment and assurance.

For students interested in becoming a genetic counselor, Ms. White advises to counsel someone in a stressful environment. Amy became an RLA and volunteered at an AIDS resource center. There, she had to discuss pre-risk assessment of HIV and become comfortable speaking with people about difficult issues. Sometimes in Amy’s work, she finds after analyzing the genetic makeup of the father, mother, and child that the child could not have came from that particular father. Her job is to break this kind of news to families. Sadly, ten percent of children do not know their true father. Thanks to the advising and counseling experience that she obtained, Amy is able to discuss this type of situation with a family.

Although some ethical dilemmas occur, Amy is extremely happy with her profession. She sees babies at a mere two weeks old and continues to see them once a month and eventually once every three months until they reach the age of eighteen. Even then, her relationship may continue on. Amy is currently seeing a sixty year old patient with a heart condition. Amy builds relationships with the families over time and works with the children directly to help them live full lives in spite of their condition.