Warmly welcomed by members of the HWS and Geneva communities, Yale research scientist Ellen T. Matloff, a Geneva High School graduate, made a special return visit to her hometown Thursday as the distinguished guest lecturer of the Max and Marian Farash Community Lecture series held at Hobart and William Smith.
Matloff’s talk, “The Angelina Jolie Effect: Genetic Testing in 2013,” drew a standing-room only audience to the Geneva Room, where she discussed her work in genetic counseling at Yale and presented comprehensive information about cancer genetic testing, the options for patient care, as well as career opportunities for students interested in the field.
As the director of cancer genetic counseling at the Yale Cancer Center/Yale School of Medicine, Matloff is an expert on genetic testing and specializes in hereditary breast, ovarian, and colon cancer syndromes, as well as rare cancers. Under Matloff’s leadership, practitioners provide genetic counseling and testing to people at increased risk for hereditary cancer and help them to make informed medical decisions based on their own personal risk assessment. These interventions can help those at risk to better manage their health and reduce the chances of developing cancer.
Matloff began her presentation by noting actress Angelina Jolie’s widely publicized disclosure about carrying the Breast Cancer 1 (BRCA1) gene mutation and undergoing proactive bilateral prophylactic mastectomies. She said Jolie’s announcement has brought important attention and developments within her field of work in genetic counseling and testing.
“Angelina Jolie had the courage to come out with a disclosure that she carries the BRCA1 mutation,” Matloff said. “Her disclosure that she carries the mutation and had bilateral prophylactic mastectomies several months earlier has really opened up and changed the field of cancer genetics, and informed many people who didn’t know about this area.”
In 2008, Matloff was contacted by the American Civil Liberties Union about joining the organization as a plaintiff in what would become the groundbreaking case, Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, which eventually was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. Earlier this year, the court made a decision in favor of the plaintiffs, with Matloff and others who successfully argued that genes are naturally occurring and, therefore, not patentable.
Before joining the lawsuit, Matloff had co-authored the scholarly article, “Direct to Confusion: Lessons Learned from Marketing BRCA Testing,” which appeared as a cover piece in the American Journal of Bioethics and received international attention.
As part of Thursday’s lecture, Matloff provided a brochure that featured local resources for certified cancer genetic counseling, as well as information for students with interest in the profession.
“I think some of you may benefit from the information personally, and some of you – students – may be looking into or are interested in science or psychology, and looking for these fields to go into professionally,” she said.
She hopes as advancements continue in the field of genetic testing, that a “cookie-cutter” approach will be taken less and less by practitioners. In doing so, an overarching aim is to reduce the risk of cancer for future generations.
Matloff’s lecture was made possible by the support of the Max and Marian Farash Charitable Foundation, a philanthropic organization that values the importance of education and entrepreneurship and has deep consideration for religious and civic communities.
Offering the introductory remarks for the lecture, President Mark D. Gearan noted the significance of having Matloff visit campus and the critical importance of the subject matter. In addition, Gearan pointed out the important connections formed between HWS and the Max and Mariam Charitable Foundation, as well as the Colleges’ relationship with Geneva public schools, particularly in light of the Geneva 2020 initiative.
“Your attendance here is a testament to this great interest in this topic,” Gearan said. “We have many reasons to be interested in Ellen Matloff’s talk – certainly including the subject of her remarks and her own journey to this important position that she holds, but also as part of our effort in Geneva 2020 in that the Colleges are committed to Geneva public schools.”
Through the partnership and the many engaged members of the broader community, Gearan said, the initiative has helped to improve graduation and literacy rates, as well as prepare students for college and careers after graduation.
“On behalf of the community and a parent in the system working with the Geneva public schools, I thank you for coming back and giving testament to the excellence that is a part of the Geneva schools public education,” Gearan said.
At the lecture, Courtney Franceschi ’16, an inaugural Farash First in Family Scholarship recipient, offered the introduction for Matloff’s lecture. Franceschi is a Geneva High School graduate and a William Smith sophomore.
“Like many others in the room, Ellen Matloff got her start right here in Geneva. As one of the many successful graduates of Geneva High School, Ellen Matloff inspires all of us to reach further than what we think is possible.”
Among the lecture’s many attendees were members of the campus and Geneva communities, including students and educators from the Geneva City School District, and current and past members of the New Vision Medical Career Program at Finger Lakes Health, some which are now William Smith students.
Laura Van Neil, director of the New Vision program, said the lecture was an outstanding opportunity for students to learn about genetic counseling and testing, and specifics about the profession.
Following the lecture, Matloff said she was proud to see firsthand the important partnership taking place between Hobart and William Smith and Geneva public schools. In addition, she said she credits her public school education from the Geneva school system for providing her with the foundation to go on to build a successful career in genetic counseling at Yale.
“I’d also like to thank Geneva, N.Y. and the Geneva public schools, and so many of my former teachers and principal,” Matloff said. “Let me ask you this? How many places can you go to school where 25 years later, your school, your community, your classmates, your teachers, your principal, come out to hear your lecture? This has given me the strength to fight the good fight.”
Matloff is the daughter of retired Drs. David and Martha Matloff of Geneva. She holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Union College and a master’s degree in genetic counseling from Northwestern University. Matloff joined Yale in 1995 to start the Cancer Genetic Counseling Program, which is now one of the largest in the country. She has lectured internationally on cancer genetics, and has published extensively on the topic of cancer genetic counseling and testing.
The forum was created as part of the Geneva 2020 initiative launched between the Geneva School District and HWS.