W&J senior looks to solve DNA mystery with independent study

Created: August 7, 2017
Last Updated: January 14, 2020

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WASHINGTON, PA (August 7, 2017)—Haley Kulas ’18 can’t be stopped.

Drawing motivation from the mysterious genetic condition that’s put her in a wheelchair, the Washington & Jefferson College (W&J) senior is looking to find answers about her own DNA and provide insight for others about their own unique conditions.

This summer, Kulas is interning with the Hemophilia Center of Western Pennsylvania, working alongside genetic counselor Michelle Alabek to learn more about the career she plans to pursue. In the fall, she’ll launch an independent study into her own genetic makeup with adjunct professor of biology Emily Furbee, Ph.D.

Kulas’s condition is akin to muscular dystrophy, but the exact cause and diagnosis are unknown.

“I’m kind of a genetic mystery; we don’t know what I have. I was only diagnosed based on certain symptoms, but genetically I don’t have a diagnosis. I’ve given so much blood over the years. They have muscle biopsies. But there’s no history of (muscle disorders) in my family, either. I’m the only one that has it. Genetically, we just don’t really know what happened,” she said.

The summer before she began college, doctors found a genetic mutation in her DNA, but weren’t able to say for certain if it was the cause of her condition. Recently, Kulas learned from her doctor that her mother has the same mutation without exhibiting symptoms, ruling it out as the root of her disorder.

Through her internship, Kulas has been able to shadow genetic counselors, work with industry technology to update family genetic records, and learn more about what goes into the career. Though she’s shadowed genetic counselors in the past, this is the first experience she’s had where she’s been able to participate in some of the record work, which was an important feature to Kulas when she was searching for possible internships.

“I really wanted the behind-the-scenes work because I have seen so much clinic with all my shadowing,” she said. “(Alabek) went over every patient she was going to see with me and we would discuss each case. It was really engaging, which is not what I got just from shadowing. So the non-clinic days were really beneficial.”

Kulas will bring the knowledge she’s gained from the internship to her independent study course this fall, using scientific research to clear the uncertainty that surrounds her own DNA.

She plans to look into her genetic mutation with Furbee, with whom she has studied before and was grateful for the class experience.

“I took her genomics course this past spring, which not a lot of schools offer that, so that looks good on my resume. I really liked the lab work of it, because it was computer generated, so it made it so much easier for me. I could actually do hands-on work rather than sitting there and watching someone else do the lab work,” Kulas said.

In the future, Kulas wants to give patients answers, and she believes her condition helps her relate to others suffering from genetic disorders.

“I like to think that I could be there for someone and I really like helping them out in that way. Because I’ve been through it myself, it makes me the perfect candidate,” she said.

About Washington & Jefferson College

Washington & Jefferson College, located in Washington, Pa., is a selective liberal arts college founded in 1781. Committed to providing each of its students with the highest-quality undergraduate education available, W&J offers a traditional arts and sciences curriculum emphasizing interdisciplinary study and independent study work. For more information about W&J, visit www.washjeff.edu, or call 888-W-AND-JAY.

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