Women are generally known as the more nurturing and caring gender. Well, what happens when you combine those compassionate traits with a genuine interest in genetic analysis? Ask Nelly Oundjian, a medical geneticist with a specialty in pediatrics and clinical psychogenetics. That may all sound quite complicated, but Oundjian describes her profession in terms that we can all understand, which is part of what makes her so good at her job.
Born in Syria, Oundjian completed medical school there in 1981. After coming to the U.S. in 1982, she planned to become a pediatric neurologist. However, after listening to a Columbia professor’s lecture on genetics, she knew she had found her calling. “The field wasn’t very advanced at the time so several of my friends would tell me ‘This is crazy! Why do you want to do this?’ But I don’t know, it was so interesting, it was kind of my destiny.”
The ease with which she shifted into this new branch of medicine seems characteristic of Oundjian, who approaches situations with a level head and positive outlook despite the often-depressing situations in her work. As a genetic analyst, Oundjian diagnoses children and newborns with birth defects, mental retardation, or other genetic conditions and provides management and treatment. She also branches out to provide prenatal genetic counseling to pregnant women and screens for cancer genetics in women who have familial breast, ovarian, or colon cancers. “I think my favorite part about my job is when I am able to diagnose women and find out the case of their cancer,” she says. “These women come in to see me and they’re so scared, but by the time they leave the session they have no fear because I absorb it from them and give them hope.”
These motherly habits come naturally to Oundjian, who is the mother of three boys—John, Peter, and Andrew. Considering that she is a doctor, one might assume that it would be difficult to manage a career and a family at the same time. Yet, Oundjian explains that her specific field of medicine has allowed her to work on a part-time basis. One of the ways she was able to manage working and caring for her boys was with the help of the Armenian community, through such programs as the ACYOA, St. Vartan Camp, and Sunday School at St. Leon’s Church in Fairlawn, N.J. “In a country where people belong to different ethnic groups, the Armenian community helped them find an identity and helped them become better people,” she says.
Oundjian herself has a rather inspirational way of connecting to her Armenian heritage. “I remember hearing stories of my grandpa and how he came to Syria and I always thought of the strength and perseverance of the Armenian people,” she explains. “A lot of times I told myself that I had these qualities because I am Armenian.”
With a successful career and a happy family already under her belt, Oundjian has her sights set high for her future as well. “In the future I would like to retire and write. I’ve written a lot of short stories and even poems,” she says. “But genetics have improved so much since I started, I want to establish some kind of genetic center in an underdeveloped country. I will retire doing that for sure.”
This is part of a series of articles about successful Armenian women with interesting careers. Keep an eye out for other profiles.