Nancy Adams: NC’s first genetic counselor

Posted on March 15, 2022

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Nancy Adams for “Then and Now” story in UNCG Magazine

Nancy James Adams ’60, ’77 MS has worked longer as a genetic counselor than anyone else in this state. That’s because this UNC Greensboro alumna was the very first.  

Dr. Bruce Eberhart, then the Department Head of Biology, and Dr. Laura Anderton advised Adams on her master’s degree in genetic counseling during the 1970s. It was a very new field; no colleges in the Southeast offered the major.  
Adams said, “They assisted me in creating my own program of study.” 

The courses Adams had available to her at UNCG gave her the tools necessary to suceed in her academic pursuits, but she needed to gain clinical experience. Dr. Neil Kirkman, then head of the Genetics and Metabolism Divison at NC Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill, agreed to mentor her in clinical rotations.  

Adams’ master’s degree in biology with an emphasis in human/medical genetics took her four years to complete while she raised two children and conmmuted from Burlington to Greensboro, and later to Chapel Hill for her clinical experiences. 

Nancy James Adams ’60, ’77 MS, March 2022, Jackson Library, UNCG

She went on to become the first certified genetic counselor in North Carolina. 

“Genetics is the ultimate preventative medicine,” Adams said. 

Genetic counselors take detailed family histories and help explain test results to patients.  They also help patients determine the best preventive and screening measures if they’re at an elevated risk for a certain medical problem such as breast cancer. 

UNCG was the first university in North Carolina to offer a master’s program in genetic counseling. 

Adams first worked in the Division of Genetics and Metabolism at Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill, and then went on to work in the Maternal-Fetal Medicine Department, where she helped develop the second maternal serum screening program in the US. Later, she explains, she became the first genetic counselor to work with a commercial lab and developed Labcorp‘s genetic services department. 

Nancy James Adams ’60, ’77 MS, a 2016 video for UNCG Magazine.

After Adams retired from Labcorp as an associate vice president, she agreed to take on a few cases in Moses Cone Hospital’s oncology department. Her load quickly increased, and she frequently had UNCG genetic counseling students shadow her. 

Now, she is officially retired, but still does some remote consultations. 

She has a history of service. Adams served on the planning committee for UNCG’s genetic counseling program, which began in 2000. In 2013, she was awarded UNCG’s School of Health and Human Sciences’ Lifetime Legacy Award. She currently serves on the external advisory committee for the UNCG genetic counseling program. She still belongs to the National Society of Genetic Counseling and the cancer special interest group. 

And she made history as the state’s first genetic counselor, made possible by a forward-thinking biology department head at UNCG.

By Victoria Cox, for UNCG Magazine
Photography by Martin W. Kane, for UNCG Magazine

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