Out of Heartbreak, a Program Is Born

Judith Tsipis, founding director of the Graduate Program in Genetic Counseling, joined Brandeis University in 1976 as a biologist with an interest in virology and genetics. Teaching an introductory laboratory course to all biology majors and advising undergraduates on careers in the biological sciences, Tsipis, in many ways, served as the conduit through which countless students would ignite their ambitions.

judith tsipis portraitJudith Tsipis

What Tsipis could not have known at the onset of her career was that, through the intersection of her own family's personal journey and her background in genetics, she would become the driving force behind the first genetic counseling program in New England.

At the time that Tsipis joined the Brandeis faculty as a member of the biology department, her eldest son, Andreas, was just a year old. Physicians noted early on that Andreas had pronounced delays in his development.

After a 12-year diagnostic odyssey, during which Andreas' neurological condition continued to deteriorate, doctors finally identified the underlying cause of his problems: Canavan disease, a progressive genetic disorder of the central nervous system.

This personal experience, along with an inherent love of science, is what inspired Tsipis to start a genetic counseling program dedicated to training professionals to help families like hers. In her book "Telling Genes" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), Alexandra Minna Stern beautifully depicts Tsipis' story and describes her as a "smart, highly educated woman based in academia with access to significant resources," who is "motivated by a mix of maternal love, parental anguish, scientific expertise and people skills."

These qualities, and an incredible amount of determination, culminated in the establishment in 1992 of the first master's program in genetic counseling in New England, at Brandeis. Some three decades and 250 graduates later, the strength of this program is a testament to Tsipis' unwavering dedication.

Tsipis could often be overheard saying "everyone has a story," and, indeed, this idea has become a central pillar of the program. The program is grounded in the education and training of genetic counselors who shoulder their own personal stories and who thus innately seek to identify and understand those stories in others.