There are many adjectives that could be used to describe Helen Bethell, NEY GMS Workforce Development & Education Lead – enthusiastic, passionate, collaborative, driven… but perhaps the best one of all would be inspirational.

In only 12 short months, Helen has made a profound impact on the team – setting up and co-leading the NEY Genomics Education Network with fellow education lead Emma Clark, conceiving of and delivering the Genomics Roadshow series in collaboration with colleagues from across the GMS, exploring opportunities to embed genomics into undergraduate programmes and creating opportunities for virtual genomics work experience placements… you name it and Helen is behind it, and also at the forefront, leading the quest for learning.

It sounds like a lot and certainly sounds impressive, but Helen will tell you, she’s only just begun. If 2023 was an exciting year, focussed on raising awareness of genomics across the widest of audiences from patients and public to healthcare professionals from all disciplines, we can’t wait to see what’s in store for 2024.

So, Helen, tell us about your role?

I’m the Workforce Development and Education Lead for North East & Yorkshire Genomic Medicine Service Alliance, which sounds like the longest job title in the world, but I think one of the key bits about the job title for me is the word development.

My role is all about development, specifically engaging and educating the workforce so that they feel prepared, confident and competent to use genomics within their role – that’s the key. 

What does this mean on a day-to-day basis?

At the moment, it feels less about education and more about engagement, because before you can educate somebody, you have to engage them. So, with the Genomic Roadshows, we’re going out to hospitals and venues talking to people face-to-face, asking if they’ve heard of genomics and encouraging them to sign up to our newsletter so that they know what’s coming up and what events are planned.

What are you finding to be the biggest challenge?

I think the biggest challenge in rolling out genomics into mainstream settings is the fact that we’ve changed the title from genetics to genomics.

My opening gambit at the roadshows, for example, is ‘Have you heard of genomics?’ and I’d say about 95% of people say ‘no’.  But if you say genetics then they usually say ‘yes’.  It’s really important for us to tell people that genomics and genetics are essentially the same thing: genomics is just a more technically accurate term.


Has genomics been central to your career from the outset?

Yes, from the very beginning really. I’ve always loved science, and always had the drive to understand it more. At school, I did sciences at A level and particularly enjoyed learning about genetics, but nobody told me you could study it at degree level.

So, I went off to Sheffield to study Biomedical Science instead and quickly realised it wasn’t for me, although I loved the biochemistry and genetics elements of the course. So, I switched over in year two and ended up doing my degree in Genetics.

What had the most impact was during my first year, we had a lecture from a Genetic Counsellor, and even as she said her job title, I knew instantly that this was the job for me!

What appealed to you about Genetic Counselling?

The idea of combining the science of genetics with people: counselling and working with patients – helping them to understand the science and how it relates to them and their families.

This was in the early 2000’s and there was lots of conflicting advice about how to become a genetic counsellor. Eventually I learned that there was a Masters in Genetic Counselling, and that was the way forward, but unfortunately, I wasn’t encouraged by my university tutors to pursue it!

How did you become a Genetic Counsellor after that advice?

Well, at the time, it was ok because I was keen to strike a balance between academic and non-academic work. So, my focus wasn’t all on course work. At Uni I got involved in lots of voluntary and charity work, such as volunteering for a project which provided holidays for disadvantaged children – one of the best things I ever did – plus lots of other volunteering activities. And I also did rowing. So, I coxed at Henley!

Turns out, the variety of experience I gained was a big plus, and when I eventually applied for my Masters, all the life and care experience I’d gained was exactly what they were looking for.

How does a Genetic Counsellor end up in a workforce development role?

In between my training and my current genetic counsellor role, I actually trained and spent several years as a secondary school science teacher.  As such I’ve always jumped at the chance of getting involved in education within my genomics role and I ended up leading a regional education group as a genetic counsellor. During that time, I was fortunate enough to meet key people from the NEY GMS and find out about the role I have now. Although the job description was a little daunting, I was very keen, and am delighted to be celebrating one year in post this month!

Since you started, has work moved along in a manner you’d like it to?

Yes, it definitely feels like it’s moving in the right direction from an engagement perspective, but I think that education needs to be more of a focus in 2024.

The Roadshows have been a phenomenal success and I think everyone in the team has really enjoyed being a part of those. But next year, I’d like to start looking at developing an education programme that targets a number of different areas and disciplines. My plan is to help people progress beyond awareness and help them take the next step in their learning journey.

So, what does 2024 hold for you?

2024 is going to be another busy and exciting year. If all goes to plan, the proposed NEY GMSA education programme will support a number of learning opportunities and a whole range of clinical groups – for example, supporting existing healthcare professionals to develop skills on the job that will help them embed genomics into their practice, or providing a framework and support for undergraduate education in genomics, to train the next generation of clinical staff, and also creating a five day work experience programme in genomics for those looking to advance their careers in the field.

I’m really looking forward to the challenges ahead and to continuing the collaborative work I’ve started with so many different people both regionally and nationally. Watch this space!