You Should Know … Betty Cohn

Betty Cohn
Betty Cohn (Courtesy of Betty Cohn)

Betty Cohn, 24, has recently had several major successes in her life.

Cohn, a research assistant at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, worked on a paper that got accepted for publication into NPJ Genomic Medicine, a partner journal of the scientific journal Nature. She also organized a Chanukah party for Chabad of Downtown, one of the Chabad house’s first big events since the start of the pandemic, she said.

Cohn lives in Little Italy in Baltimore City, where she is involved in B’nai Israel and serves on the young Jewish professionals committee at Chabad of Downtown.

She grew up on Long Island, where she went to Hebrew school at an Orthodox synagogue. She was also involved in NCSY and Camp Morasha. For undergrad, she went to Binghamton University, where she created her own major in bioethics. She then went on to get a master’s degree in bioethics at Johns Hopkins University.

What motivates you to be involved in the Jewish community?

I came from an undergrad campus that had a very, very big Jewish community, and I was really involved there, and I really enjoyed doing that, reaching out to people of all different denominations and interacting with them. So once I got here, I really wanted to do the same thing. It’s really nice to be able to meet other people that I don’t necessarily just meet at shul. Meeting new people from all different places, from all different walks of Jewish life [is something] I really enjoy, so I’m trying to help facilitate that.

Do you have any community events that you’re planning for the future?

Not right now. With COVID getting bad again, it seems like a lot of Jewish organizations are trying to tread very carefully. I have a feeling that for the next month or two, things will probably lay low, but hopefully by Purim and Pesach, we’ll be able to do things again. In an ideal world, if multiple Jewish organizations could do something together for Purim, I think that would be really cool. If that could happen, I’ll be more than happy to work with anyone who wants to work with me to make that happen, but we’ll see.

What sort of research do you do, and what is your article about?

We are researching what companies in the United States have workplace wellness programs, and we’re specifically trying to figure out if they offer genetic testing. An example of that would be, say you work for a company, and they give you benefits for health care. And they may say, “Hey, we offer you this health insurance, and we also have this wellness program,” so sometimes that might mean fitness tracking or there are other things you can do like weight loss programs. Sometimes, they’ll say, “Hey, we will pay for you to get genetic testing.” … If you have depression, it could be testing to see if the medications that you’re taking for that are the best ones for you, based on your genetic information. Or it can test for cancer genetics. … We’re just really trying to see what companies do that, so we can make sure that there’s proper policies, and so that people really think about the ethical implications of offering this testing.

How will your research benefit the world?

Companies are starting to offer genetic testing to their employees, and we are concerned that no one is thinking about potential problems that could occur because of that. Like what if your employer does this type of testing for you, and then they look at your genetic data, then fire you because you have a predisposition to some type of disease? That would be wrong, and there are laws against that, but we just want to make sure that nothing problematic arises. So we’re looking at the potential uses, and also what are the advantages? … Technology moves really, really quickly, and the people who are thinking about the ethics of this are [often] behind, so we’re just trying to make sure we’re ahead before every company starts offering this.

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