With the Base Pair series on my blog, I aim to put faces to the professional title of "Genetic Counselor" and share the stories of my fellow genetic counselors, especially for those who perhaps have never met or spoken with one of us. There are thousands of masters-trained genetic counselors in the United States and worldwide, and our stories and the work we do are as diverse as the DNA we carry. The newest Base Pair, Stephanie Cohen and Lola Cook Shukla, have been friends and coworkers for years and once stepped into the roles of patient and care provider. I asked the two to share their story, and what makes their relationship unique.
How did you get interested in genetic counseling?
Stephanie: I was working in a genetics laboratory doing basic research during a college summer, and I HATED it…..I was a little freaked out about what I would do with my biology degree because I knew I didn’t want to go to medical school and wasn’t cut out for bench-side research. I passed by a poster every day in the hallway of the biology department at CWRU – “What can you do with a biology degree?”, so I ordered a copy for my dorm room. I stared at it every night, and the two careers that stuck out to me were “mushroom farm worker” (really??) and “genetic counselor” (interesting!). I was intrigued because I had always like genetics, and I like the idea of working with people. I contacted our guidance office, they helped me track down a genetic counselor at University Hospitals. After speaking with her for 15 minutes, I knew that was what I wanted to do!
Lola: In my high school biology class. I had a very progressive teacher who was already aware in 1982 of the potential role of genetic counselors. Over a model of a human skeleton, where I was reciting bones, he told me I really needed to do more with myself!
Did you learn about genetic counseling from someone you knew, or did you influence someone else to attend school for genetic counseling?
Stephanie: I hope I have influenced someone! I have had a lot of students job-shadow me over the years, and I know several eventually went on to become genetic counselors (I can name at least 5). Claire Harwood, a current rock-star co-worker, shadowed me a few times while she was in college, and then volunteered as an intern in our office for a year before being accepted to graduate school. I can’t say that I influenced her to become a genetic counselor because I’m pretty sure that’s what she wanted to do when she first met me, but at least I didn’t drive her away, and she ultimately came back to work with us!!
Lola: I am constantly urging others to consider the field of genetic counseling or other genetic careers. It is a hot profession and has much potential to do good for others!
What is your special connection to your Base Pair buddy? How did you meet?
Stephanie: When I moved to Indianapolis, Lola was one of the few other genetic counselors in town. We met at the inaugural meeting of what ultimately became the Indiana Network of Genetic Counselors. A friendship developed over the years, beyond a collegial relationship, that includes regular get-togethers with a few other well-seasoned genetic counselors. Lola covered a maternity leave for me, adding a cancer genetics hat to her experience and taking good care of patients for me during my absence.
Professionally, we’ve worked on many projects together, including the passage of licensure in the state of Indiana and developing resources for the Indiana Network of Genetic Counselors. We’ve been a sounding board for one another over the years throughout career and personal life changes. I admire Lola’s fearless ability to take on new areas of expertise, learning what she needs to know completely and with great dedication. She is a true advocate for patients and our profession.
Lola: I know Stephanie as a good friend and top-notch cancer genetic counselor. I think we met through our overlapping jobs at a local hospital, but I really do not remember well! We go out socially for dinner with three other genetic counselor friends in the area who have bonded over the years. At our genetic counselor dinners, we laugh, talk work and family. Workwise, I know Stephanie from taking a prenatal job in the same maternal-fetal medicine department where she counseled prenatal and cancer patients. Thus, we have a work connection as well. I covered several weeks for her during a maternity leave counseling patients in the familial cancer risk center where she now works. I gained a huge and new respect for what she does as I witnessed the emotions of patients and families who had gone through so much as they dealt with familial cancer and risks to their relatives.
What’s the unique aspect to your relationship beyond being coworkers and friends?
Stephanie: I have had the privilege of providing genetic counseling to Lola for her family history of cancer. She was sweet to consider if I would feel uncomfortable in this role, considering the potential that I may have to give her difficult news. It is courageous to open your private life and past history to any medical professional, and can be even more difficult with a friend and colleague. I was honored and humbled that Lola would feel comfortable doing this with me. We had a frank conversation prior to her appointment about this, reassuring each other that we each felt comfortable in this different relationship.
Lola: I began thinking more about my risk for cancer after my father developed his 4th primary cancer and my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I began asking Stephanie questions informally about my family history of cancer and what she thought. As the years passed, more knowledge and genetic testing became available and I then made an appointment with her in the familial cancer risk center to formally talk about my cancer risk and testing options. Eventually, I decided to proceed with testing. I was worried about Stephanie potentially having to give me “bad news” from my test results. I did not want her to feel bad as a friend. She was great talking this out with me during our counseling session. It truly was a gift to have such a wise, open, and good friend to handle sensitive information and feel comfortable with it!
We both are lifelong learners and get very excited talking to each other about the changes in genetics and our field. We also enjoy sharing Indian and other exotic foods!
More about Lola and Stephanie:
Lola Cook Shukla is a genetic counselor with a broad background who has worked in pediatric, prenatal, and adult genetics. She also has worked in industry as a medical research analyst. Currently, she specializes in the genetics of Parkinson's disease, providing remote genetic counseling to participants who are part of a large Parkinson’s disease research study, sponsored by the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Lola is interested in new and innovative ways to provide genetic counseling services and serves on a working group developing practice guidelines for telegenetics for the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC) and also will be serving as co-chair of NSGC’s Health Information Technology Special Interest Group (SIG) this upcoming year.
Stephanie Cohen is a genetic counselor who provides in-person and remote genetic counseling via telemedicine for hereditary cancer risk at St. Vincent Health in Indianapolis. Stephanie is interested in improving access to cancer genetic services, and serves as the chair of the National Society of Genetic Counselor’s Service Delivery Model subcommittee. She is active in training genetic counseling students as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Indiana University as a clinical supervisor and co-instructor for a Cancer Genetics course. She has multiple publications in the field of cancer genetics and genetic counseling service delivery.
Like reading the Base Pair series? Read about my first two couples - a husband/wife couple of genetic counselors who met in graduate school and sisters-in-law who earned their degrees at different times.
Know a pair of genetic counselors who share a unique relationship? Perhaps two GCs who job-share or who work as a pair to cover the needs for an institution or geographic region? Send your recommendations to me, and maybe you'll see them highlighted in a future post!