Gene Genie Leslie Ordal joins Real Scientists!

This week, genetic counselor Leslie Ordal (@GenCounsNews) joins us on Real Scientists, so get ready to cross your As and Ts, because it’s about to get a little DyNAmic!

Leslie Ordal is a genetic counselor, health care researcher, and medical writer in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. A graduate of Wellesley College and the University of Toronto, she has sought out diverse roles in the general sphere of health, combining communication, ethics, education, and research. Her current professional interests centre around the use of genomic data to improve health and deliver more personalized medicine. She also enjoys narrative medicine and the growing field of medical humanities.

Leslie Ordal

As usual, we asked Leslie about her life as a scientist so far. Here is what Leslie told us:

I’ve always been in science in some way. As a small child, I was very interested in astronomy (and dinosaurs!), a fascination that’s stayed with me all my life. In fourth grade we were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up and I said a hematologist (not my eventual career choice, though my master’s research involved hematology). I was lucky to have a very well-rounded education with broad coverage of the humanities, but was always drawn to a career in science. I can’t say there was one single thing that drew me to science, but rather I see science in everything, whether it’s geology, surgery, or even poetry.

Genetic counselling, at its core, is about helping people understand the impact of genetics on their health and helping them make related decisions that are in line with their own values. It appealed to me because it’s essentially a mix of science, medicine, health promotion, and communication. As someone who enjoys writing and education, as well as health and research, it seemed like the perfect fit. I didn’t go into it straight away after undergrad, but while I was working in medical writing and medical education development I took a couple of years to research potential future careers, and kept coming back to genetic counselling.

I’ve chosen what the genetic counselling community calls a “non-traditional” role, where I don’t usually see patients. Instead, I’ve pursued clinical research positions, working mainly on projects with a genetics or disability focus. My clinical skillset–risk assessment, compassionate communication, meticulous attention to detail–fits well with the research environment as it does in the traditional genetic counselling setting. Right now I’m working on projects related to the use of whole genome sequencing to help diagnose rare conditions as well as create guidelines about the disclosure of so-called “incidental” findings (or all the things you discover when you examine the genome that closely, but weren’t looking for).

Genetic counselling is a rapidly expanding field, and for good reason–as our knowledge of genetics grows exponentially, more and more specialities outside of genetics are seeing the value of having a GC integrated into their clinic structure. We have unique skills in assessing risk for genetic conditions, sharing sensitive information with compassion and empathy, and understanding complex and potentially confusing genetic test results. Genetics is complicated (to make a great understatement) and constantly being updated: part of our training is how to keep on top of all this new information and rapidly incorporate it into the risk assessment and education for an individual patient. Oncology and cardiology have been among the first specialities to start to incorporate a genetic counsellor in their practices, with others beginning to follow suit. And of course, we can bring a special perspective to clinical research given our background in rigorous science as well as patient/participant interaction. More and more we’ll be seeing genetic counsellors in other settings, even primary care, and especially in research. Currently genetic counsellors are still very much under utilized, and there needs to be more awareness that we’re out there and available to help improve patient care.

I’m also very involved in research ethics, having worked as a coordinator for the research ethics board (aka, institutional review board) at the largest paediatric hospital in Canada, and served as a member of other boards. I’m passionate about informed consent and privacy, and how these can be improved and protected as we take advantage of studying the huge genomic datasets that will ultimately lead to better health care and more lives saved.

Another area of interest is LGBTQI+ health; I’m currently collaborating on a project to develop clinical guidelines for the primary care of intersex individuals. And when I have the time, I still do the occasional freelance medical writing project, which is often journal editing or health promotion materials.

I’ve ridden and trained horses for 25+ years, and am active in textiles/fiber arts. I write articles occasionally on both topics, especially the latter, for various magazines. I also like learning about linguistics and picking up new languages.

Her ideal day would probably involve one at the barn with her horses, especially in the fall when the leaves are turning. And good access to exceptional coffee (espresso is another hobby…).

Please welcome Leslie to Real Scientists!

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