Beth N. Peshkin, 43
Job: Associate professor of oncology at Georgetown University and senior genetic counselor at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Salary: The average yearly gross salary in 2010 was $66,047, according to the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC).

What She Does: When a loved one is diagnosed with a rare or terminal condition, family members often wonder, “Why us?” Peshkin helps answer that question. She explains the options people have in finding the cause of a disorder and the likelihood that others in their family will get it, too, through genetic testing. The test — usually performed by a lab technician after a geneticist determines which test is appropriate — is an examination of DNA in saliva or blood that looks for changes in chromosomes, genes or proteins that indicate a problematic hereditary pattern. “Within a week or two, we get those results back and then have another genetic counseling session where we interpret those results” and discuss how to handle that knowledge, Peshkin says.

Would You Want This Job?: Becoming intimately involved in people’s lives at vulnerable moments can be both rewarding and emotionally challenging, Peshkin says. “It’s difficult to give an individual or family news that they weren’t expecting or that they would consider to be upsetting,” she says. But “if I were to stop feeling affected emotionally by it, then it would be time for me to move on.” Besides being empathetic, counselors must also stay up to date on the industry, which is changing quickly because of technological advancements: “It’s important to be able to understand a lot of the medical and scientific information, and be able to boil that down in a way that is understandable to patients,” she says.

How She Got This Job: A former graduate school adviser told her about the Georgetown job. But her interest in genetic disease was piqued long before, at the age of 12 after watching a program about the Elephant Man — a 19th-century Englishman who had severe deformities. After getting a B.S. in microbiology from the University of Maryland, she worked for a year at the National Cancer Institute’s hotline, which solidified her specialty in the illness. Peshkin earned a master’s degree in medical genetics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1993 and is certified by the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC). She also has a certificate in bioethics and health policy from the Loyola School of Medicine.

How You Can Get This Job: About 30 U.S. graduate programs offer degrees in genetic counseling, including Howard University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Virginia Commonwealth University. For more information, check out ABGC and NSGC.

Written by Express contributor Stephanie Kanowitz
Photo by Kevin Dietsch