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Dr. Mom salutes Dr. Son: Family ties highlighted on stage

Nearly every year UMass Worcester Commencement includes a few students who are following their parents’ footsteps into medicine or science. One such pair is highlighted below.

Dr. Mom and Dr. SonCommencement is a special milestone for graduates and their families, with older generations perhaps reflecting fondly on their own graduation decades ago. For UMass Medical School Assistant Professor of Medicine Judith A. Stebulis, MD, watching her son Matthew Stebulis walk across the stage will bring back not-too-distant memories of her own UMass Worcester graduation in 1998, the same year Matt completed North Middlesex Regional High School in Townsend.

In the 12 short years between Judy’s and Matt’s graduations, the face of the campus has changed significantly but the core curriculum and its professors have not. Both Stebulises readily recall Mai Lan Rogoff’s Mind Brain Behaviors course, Ken Wolf’s neurology lectures and Aldo Rossini’s habit of tossing candy to students who provided correct answers in his diabetes lectures.

Judy, a rheumatologist at UMass Memorial Medical Center, even got to teach some of Matt’s class on rheumatology. “He didn’t ask any questions,” she said, to which Matt quipped, “Well, I’d heard the lecture a couple of times before!”

Matt knew a thing or two about rheumatology long before he or his mother enrolled at UMass Worcester; he was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA) as a child. As any parent would, Judy quickly learned as much as she could about JRA in order to provide the best care for her son. She began working with the Affiliated Children’s Arthritis Centers of New England, whose mission is to help families understand the issues that arise from chronic illnesses, and help doctors understand what their patients’ families were going through and how certain home and school issues might affect the child’s care or compliance with instructions. As a parent outreach coordinator, she helped smooth and strengthen the interface between families and the doctors and medical professionals caring for their children. (She and colleagues wrote, Your Child With Arthritis: The Family Guide to Caregiving.)

Becoming more and more immersed in the work of the center, Judy, who had graduated from Penn State in 1974, recognized she had an affinity for both the parent/patient perspective and the medical professionals’ perspective and decided to enroll in medical school.

“UMass was a clear choice because it was not only far more affordable, it was close enough to home [in Townsend] that I didn’t have to uproot my two teenagers,” she said.

For Matt, who was exposed to the medical profession first through his own JRA and later through visits to campus with his mother, science and medicine seemed a natural career choice. He earned a dual degree in biology and microbiology from the University of Vermont in 2002 and worked for four years at a biotechnology company that creates cell culture platforms for drug discovery and develops high throughput screening tools. “I felt like I was paralleling where I wanted to be,” he said. “I had considered both medical school and graduate school, but I wanted to be sure. I also wanted to wait and see if the company would go public, which would pay for school!”

Ultimately, Matt realized he liked the application of therapeutics more than the development of them. Having been around UMass Worcester not only through his mother’s education and work, but also through an HIV vaccine research project he conducted in the summer of 2001 with Shan Lu, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and biotechnology & molecular pharmacology, he made UMass Worcester his first choice for medical school. “I had been accepted elsewhere, but UMass called me on my birthday to offer me a spot and I said yes immediately. They asked if I wanted to take some time to think about it before making a decision, but I said, ‘No, I don’t need time, I’m coming!’”

Like his mother, Matt will continue his medical training right here. He will start his anesthesiology residency at UMass Worcester, where his mother completed both her residency and her fellowship in rheumatology. The two of them enjoy sharing the common experiences that have come from UMass Worcester. Their experience as parent and child facing chronic illness together also informs their relationships with their patients. Though the majority of her patients are adults, Judy sometimes has the opportunity to work with a teen transitioning from pediatric to adult care. “When those patients have a parent in the room with them, it reminds me of my own experience as a parent. It can be hard for a parent of a child with chronic illness to step back and let go a bit once that child becomes an adult.”

As his medical career progresses, Matt hopes to always keep in mind his own experience as a patient and anticipate the types of questions his patients might have. “As a patient with a parent in the field, I learned to ask a lot more questions of my own doctors. I hope I always give my patients the information they need to participate in their care.”

“It’s been fun for me to watch him progress first through science and then through medicine,” Judy said. “We talk about science and have fun discussing biology. Matt’s very skilled in the lab and helped me with my western blot technique when I was in the lab.”

For his part, Matt sometimes asks Judy for clinical advice, but more often than not these days, he asks her for parenting advice, as he and his wife are now the parents of an adorable 11-month-old boy, Mason. Asked if he would like Mason to follow in the family footsteps and become a doctor, Matt said, “Sure, if that’s what he becomes interested in as he grows up, I’d encourage it, and I’d strongly encourage him to go to UMass.”

Judy was among the many hooders participating in Commencement this year and got to place the ceremonial hood over Matt’s head as his degree was conferred, as they both enjoyed the moment with his classmates and several of the professors they shared.