For Gena Cooper, Farm Life Reinforces Interest in Medicine
Wisconsin Academy for Rural Medicine (WARM)
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Gena Cooper grew up on a farm just southwest of Milwaukee and served as Alice in Dairyland, Wisconsin's key spokesperson for the state's dairy industry.
Now she's a second-year student at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison and hopes to someday return to her bucolic roots - as a doctor in a rural or farming community. She's keeping up with her studies while running a dairy farm in Columbus, Wisconsin, with her husband.
Cooper says a career in medicine was something she's wanted since her days as a student at Mukwonago High School. As an undergraduate at UW-Madison, she majored in biochemistry, which she felt could provide the background she needed to get into medical school.
After earning her BS degree in 2005, Cooper applied to the School of Medicine and Public Health but was put on a waiting list. It was during this time she encountered a "good twist of fate."
"I applied for the position of Alice in Dairyland," she says. "A week after graduation, I went through the finals process, which lasted three days. A panel of agriculture and public relations professionals observed me and interviewed me on my knowledge of agriculture, my ability to connect with the community and how to use that knowledge in media campaigns, speeches and other outlets. It's a very rigorous process and very stressful."
From Alice in Dairyland to Med Student
Cooper was eventually chosen Wisconsin's 58th Alice in Dairyland, which is a full-time position with the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. She served for a year starting in June 2005.
"I spent most of my time in media settings doing interviews for television, radio, newspaper and the Internet. And I spoke at a wide range of events including county fairs, local service organizations, agricultural conventions and the Wisconsin Legislature," she says. "My job was very dynamic and required me to stay up to date on what was happening in agriculture."
After completing her term as Alice, Cooper was hired by the Department of Agriculture as a bio-industry analyst and participated in a renewable energy task force formed by Governor Jim Doyle.
Two years later, Cooper decided she needed to make a major change in her life.
"I liked what I was doing, it was interesting and challenging, but I didn't love it," she says. "I was still drawn to medicine. I wanted to connect with the community, reach out to individuals and make a difference in a real way."
Cooper's entry into the UW School of Medicine and Public Health came at the same time as the school was creating the Wisconsin Academy for Rural Medicine (WARM). The program accepts students committed to working in rural communities of Wisconsin where shortages of doctors and medical facilities occur.
"I was very excited to learn about the WARM program," says Cooper. "It just seemed to fit my interests and my goal of serving people involved in agriculture and also using science and medicine to do that."
'This is Where I Belong'
While Cooper felt it was right to pursue her dream, she also understood the risks.
"I was taking a big leap of faith, because I had a job I liked and was working with interesting people," she says. "Similar to other students who come back to school, you question why you are giving up so much. Now that I am here and doing it, I realize it was a no-brainer, because this is where I belong and this is what I want."
While her family eventually stopped farming in Mukwonago, Cooper is now a partner in a dairy farm in Columbus with her husband, Brian Kurth, who earned a dairy science degree from UW-Madison.
"He is the farmer, but I do a lot of the work on the business end, including the paperwork," she says. "I make sure the work gets done and that everything is running smoothly. Brian is a great person and passionate about farming."
Cooper says she does more than put pencil to paper and occasionally gets her fingernails dirty.
"While Brian was building our new farm, I spent a lot of nights and weekends helping install milking machines and stalls for the cows that live in the barn," she says. "But I don't get to ride the tractors. They're just too big!"
Parallels Between Farming and Medicine
Cooper believes that working on a farm has reinforced her goal of wanting to become a doctor.
"Farming brings you down to the most natural level," she says. "Everything you do pertains to sustaining life, producing food to keep life going. We grow crops to feed our animals; they make milk and that helps build strong bones. Farming makes that cycle real and the connection to health real."
She also sees similarities between caring for farm animals and caring for humans.
"You can tell an animal is sick by how it acts, the way it walks, how it comes into the barn. All of that has made me more observant," says Cooper. "I know there will be a great parallel to human medicine when I see what's different with a patient's demeanor and determine what that may mean for the patient's health."
Cooper says she's prepared for the day when she will have to leave her business behind to do her WARM rotations in Rice Lake and Marshfield, Wisconsin. She's excited about what the future may hold.
"WARM is such an excellent opportunity for me," says Cooper. "It's such an honor to pursue my dream of serving a Wisconsin farming community as its doctor. I can't wait to see where the next steps of my training will take me."
By Mike Klawitter
This article appears in the spring 2010 issue of Quarterly.
Date Published: 05/12/2010