Family Tree: Robin Bennett MA '84
If you’re thinking of creating the usual kind of family tree—a typical who’s who among your ancestors—think again, advises Robin L. Bennett. “People spend all this time getting genealogy records—who their grandparents were, and where they were married and buried—but they don’t ask what they died from,” says the graduate of Sarah Lawrence’s Graduate Program in Human Genetics, who is now president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors and one of the authors of a ground-breaking study on first-cousin unions.
As a girl, Bennett watched her mother’s closest friend struggle to raise a son with Angelman Syndrome, a profound form of mental retardation. Later, when Bennett was studying high-school biology—about the time that Sarah Lawrence was graduating the first students from the new genetics program—she heard about the exciting field and decided that she, too, could make a difference helping families like the one she knew as a child.
Today Bennett, who also directs the Medical Genetics Clinic at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, is helping many individuals understand their genetic family information and how it relates to decisions about Huntington’s disease, first-cousin unions, cancer and inborn errors of metabolism, for example. Of the 10,000 or so human illnesses known to the medical profession, about 3,000—among them, heart disease, high blood pressure, leukemia and some breast cancers—leave genetic footprints. That is why, says Bennett, once an individual goes to the trouble of tracing his or her ancestors, it will be worth the extra time to create and include a medical family tree.
Indeed, your life could depend on it, she says, explaining that the visual representation of a family’s medical history, also known as a pedigree, has become one of the most important genetic tests available. In conjunction with blood testing, it often offers doctors and patients the necessary data to make many informed decisions. Bennett, the author of The Practical Guide to the Genetic Family History (John Wiley & Sons, 1999) says she hopes her field will become even more accepted in coming years. “Someday perhaps people will go to see a genetic counselor the way they now go to a personal health trainer,” she says—to learn how to better care for their own health and that of family members.
Bennett has also contributed to the field of genetics through a highly publicized study revealing that first-cousin relationships face a much lower risk of producing children with a genetic condition than has long been perceived. After her findings were published in the Journal of Genetic Counseling in April 2002, Bennett and her co-authors found themselves fielding calls from US News and World Report, The New York Times and the Associated Press. One reason these issues and questions have attracted attention in recent years, she explains, is that health care practitioners are seeing more cousin marriages in the immigrant population coming from Africa and the Middle East, where cousin marriages are far more common.
Nineteen years after graduating from Sarah Lawrence, Bennett says she is even more convinced that she made the right decision enrolling in the genetics counseling program. “I can’t imagine doing anything else that challenges me every day to learn new things and think about what’s really important in life,” she says. “Seeing how families deal with the information they come to me for puts life into perspective, and I get a great sense of empowerment from helping them.”
— Elsa Brenner