Sarah and Talya: The newest Base Pair shares a love of reading (and discussing) books

In the Base Pair series, we get a chance to learn about genetics professionals (genetic counselors and geneticists) who have partnered up to pursue a project together. I ask them to share a bit of the back-story, how they came to be partnered with their buddy. Origin stories like these can be so powerful because they open our eyes to new and different opportunities. When we see how the paths of others have crossed, it helps us look at the people in our lives in a different way as well.

I am excited that later this summer, I’ll have a new project with a fellow genetic counselor to announce! But before we get to that exciting news, I want to share the story of Sarah and Talya, two genetic counselors who came together to start up a book club called BooksZebras that meets up over Twitter.

Each month, followers of the @BookZebras account on Twitter read the same book independently, then meet up to discuss the book in threads. (A thread is an open, mini-conversation that anyone on Twitter can hop onto and reply with thoughts, comments, likes, and retweets.)

I was honored to have The DNA Guide for Adoptees selected as June’s book of the month, a book my coauthor Shannon Combs-Bennett and I worked hard to bring to life. Knowing that the information and support we share through our book is making its way into more hands brings allllll the good feels this way.

Thanks, Sarah and Talya, for choosing it and for sharing with us about how your BooksZebras book club came to be. Looking forward to many hours of good reading ahead!


Talya Boisjoli (left) and Sarah Stewart (right) looking chilly (but happy)!

Talya Boisjoli (left) and Sarah Stewart (right) looking chilly (but happy)!

How did you get interested in genetic counseling? Did you learn about genetic counseling from someone in you knew, or did you influence someone else to attend school for genetic counseling?

Sarah: My mom works as a prenatal sonographer and introduced me to a prenatal genetic counsellor when I was in first year of university. I was intrigued by the profession, but then spent the next three years working as an ABA therapist with kids with autism and adults with brain injuries and thinking I wanted to be a psychologist. Right before graduating my undergrad, I re-discovered genetic counselling as a profession and realized it was a better fit for me, since I fell in love with working with families during my time as an ABA therapist. After seeing families searching for answers, I wanted to be able to help them find some or at least help them feel comfortable with not having one.

Talya: After my first year at McGill, my mom was having genetic testing while I was looking for a "science related" summer job. All to say, my mom somehow walked out of her appointment with a job opportunity for me. I ended up joining the cancer genetics team and worked there for all of my undergrad. It wasn't love at first sight, I laugh because after my first summer, I remember clearly saying I wanted to be an accountant and follow the path of both my parents. It was really during my second summer, where I was able to shadow patient sessions, that the love & click was established, I was fascinated by everything genetic. I loved the patient contact, hearing about everyone's family stories and providing some understanding to that history.

What is your special connection to your Base Pair buddy? How did you come up with your partnership idea (in your case, the Book Zebras Twitter book club)? 

Both: We met each other during grad school at Sarah Lawrence College, and instantly bonded over being transplants from Canada (as approximately one third of SLC's class does approximately every year... shout out to no international tuition fees for Canadians). The first time we worked together was on an outreach lecture for high school students about genetic counselling and testing. Our friendship was strong during our two years at Sarah Lawrence, but  after we graduated it become the close bond it is today. Through the experience of being Team Canada we started chatting more about work visas, then the wonderful boards [certification exam for genetic counselors]. We've both always been supporters of using social media and the community on Twitter to interact and learn more about genetics. We wanted to contribute to this community together, perhaps as a way to promote awareness/advocacy/education and then the best idea of a book club came up (since what's better for nerdy genetic counsellors than a book club?). It started primarily as a way keep our long distance friendship strong and it's definitely been a success in that regard, as now we have something more productive to text about daily rather than complaining about missing Tim Horton's roll-up-the rim or exactly how amazing Canada is (we aren't biased, but just FYI, #WeTheNorth, and yes, DRAKE IS AMAZING). 

 Anything else of interest I haven't thought to ask, perhaps if you have any long-term plans or goals for the Book Zebras? 

Both: We would both like to thank Komal Bajaj (@KomalBajajMD) for #SLCRepro and introducing us to the world of Twitter. It's been a fun experience, and BookZebras would not have been here today without her innovation and dedication to making healthcare knowledge accessible through social media. Our goal for BookZebras is to provide a space where genetic counsellors (or anyone who loves genetics -which is everyone right?!) can come to learn, discuss, and expand their horizons. Our personal goal is to keep our long distance friendship strong and continuing to be best base pairs there is. But, real goals: starting a Keeping Up with the Book Zebras reality show, where we discuss all genetics topics!

Last question! What books have been included so far as @BookZebras featured books?

So far the 2019 picks have been:

March - Handle with Care by Jodi Picoult

April - Resurrection Lily by Amy Byer Shainman

May - Wonder by RJ Palacio

June - DNA Guide for Adoptees by Brianne Kirkpatrick & Shannon Combs-Bennett

July - Stretch Mark My Heart by Niki Breeser Tschirgi

Base Pair Bios:

Sarah and an amazing view in Croatia!

Sarah and an amazing view in Croatia!

Sarah Stewart is an alumna of the Joan H. Marks Graduate Program in Human Genetics at Sarah Lawrence College. She currently works as a pediatric genetic counsellor at Children's Hospital Colorado, where she is able to meet her passion of working to support families going through new, old, and unclear diagnoses. Originally an Ottawa native, Sarah enjoys bringing a bit of Canadian everywhere she goes, including adding an extra "L" in "genetic counsellor". She loves learning about the differences in genetic counselling approaches and availability in different international settings, which she has had the chance to learn about through rotation opportunities in England, Canada, and the USA. As genetics and the field advances, she is excited to see how genetic testing technology and counselling techniques and how different clinical settings (at a national and international level) can learn from each other in order to offer the most effective care and support to patients. She is thankful for all the opportunities she's been afforded through becoming a genetic counselling, especially the second families she's made through her time in training and in her current position.

Talya hard at work, getting some DNA samples to the testing lab!

Talya hard at work, getting some DNA samples to the testing lab!

Talya Boisjoli is a genetic counsellor at the Brooklyn Hospital Center and alumna of the Joan H. Marks Graduate Program in Human Genetics at Sarah Lawrence College. She was brought into the field of genetic counselling as a consequence of her mom's experience with breast cancer, and is passionate about helping others in a similar way to how her mother was helped by her genetic counsellors. She is passionate about staying at the front edge of genetics and learning as much as she can everyday with the end goal of pursuing a PhD. Currently, Talya is enjoying being young in New York while restarting the genetic clinic at the Brooklyn Hospital Center. She is thankful for the opportunities the big city has given her such as the ability supervise students, mentor thesis committees, attend many conferences and work alongside many wonderful practitioners.

Don't forget to follow @BookZebras on Twitter to join in the conversation and see what the next book will be!