Emory Report
February 11, 2008
Volume 60, Number 19

Now showing
View Catherine Tesla’s work at Lagerquist Gallery (3235 Paces Ferry Place, Atlanta, GA 30305), where she is the featured artist until Feb. 16 as part of ATLart[08].

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February 11, 2008
What’s in the cards?
Ask this genetics counselor, whose hallmark is art

By Robin Tricoles

Artist Catherine Tesla grew up in St. Louis, Mo., a breath away from Hallmark Cards’ headquarters in Kansas City. Her first foray into art came when she carefully crafted a card for her grandmother’s birthday.

“I was always creating something. I started making birthday cards for people when I was three. I made my first birthday card for my grandmother, and I put the little Hallmark crown on the back. Of course, it wasn’t an artistically accurate crown, but everybody knew what it was, everybody remembers it,” says Tesla, both a working artist and a genetics counselor and instructor in the Department of Human Genetics at Emory.

Although Tesla’s first love is art, she is passionate about science as well. Tesla, an accomplished abstract and landscape painter, holds a master’s degree in genetics counseling and an undergraduate degree in biology.

She became interested in genetics when her high school science teacher gave her class science problems to solve, and one involved genetics. “I didn’t know then it was a realistic problem, but I became fascinated by the subject. I found I loved both art and science, but when I went to college my parents gave me more positive reinforcement for the sciences, so I went with the science track and later found myself in genetics counseling school,” says Tesla.

“I think the art and science go hand and hand. People often look at science as using one side of the brain and art as the other. But I find as an artist I problem-solve a lot. For example, when I’m composing a painting, I don’t necessarily have an exact plan, but halfway through I have to figure out what’s going to happen next. And as a counselor, I have to be creative about how I interact with a patient and how I get my point across so the patient can do what they need to do,” says Tesla.

Tesla has been involved in genetics counseling, a diverse and growing field, for more than 20 years. “I like to look at genetics as being important throughout the life cycle. Before pregnancy we screen gamete [egg and sperm] donors for heritable risk factors. We counsel couples who have fertility problems that may be of genetic origin. We see many prenatal patients who have a higher chance of having a child with a birth defect as well as those seeking counseling after babies are born with conditions such as Down’s syndrome, fragile X or metabolic disorders,” she says. There are also genetic clinics for conditions that have an adult-onset.

Lately, instead of counseling patients face to face, Tesla has been devoting her time to answering questions about genetics and posting them on a Web site that is a collaborative effort of the Department of Human Genetics at Emory and the Department of Genetics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Called “AsktheGeneticist,” (www.askthegen.org) the site’s readership started slowly but has recently gained momentum.

“Ever since the National Institutes of Health’s Web site linked to our site for every medical condition that they listed, we grew from about 35 questions per week to more than 100,” says Tesla. The site gets questions from every state and more than 60 countries. “We even started to get e-mails from people saying, ‘thanks for answering my question. I went to a genetics clinic and got help.’”

Tesla says she’s put her heart into the genetics Web site as much as she has her art. “In years past, when I was seeing patients full time, sometimes things could get very heavy and the art was a real respite — just painting and hearing the sound of a brush against the canvas. But I really do enjoy doing both, going back and forth between art and science.”