Profile with Laurel Gabler

Laurel Sydney Gabler (New York & Green Templeton 2008) currently works for the Center for Child and Adolescent Health Research and Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children as Senior Research Coordinator on the Massachusetts Home Visiting Initiative. She is finishing her PhD in Public Health and holds an MSc in Global Health Science from Oxford and a BA in Psychology from Stanford   University. She will be starting medical school at Harvard this year.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Laurel Gabler: I have called many places home over the last 10 years - Waterville, Maine; Palo Alto, California; Prachinburi, Thailand; Oxford; Nepal. I currently live in Boston. But Amagansett, New   York is where I grew up and where my parents still live, so I guess that is my permanent home base.

Rhodes Project: What’s the last book you couldn’t put down?

Laurel Gabler: I am not going to lie – I found The Hunger Games to be pretty addicting. More recently, I read a collection of short stories called Stay Awake by Dan Chaon. I am a huge fan of short stories and usually try to read a collection of short stories while I am reading a novel. This particular collection was incredibly dark and depressing, and many of the stories felt incomplete to me – like the beginning of a great story that just didn’t fully get there. The incompleteness of his stories was something that compelled me when I read his first collection, Among the Missing, but I found it unsettling in this collection. I am now reading Cutting for Stone, which I feel somewhat obligated to read given that Verghese teaches at my alma mater, and I am starting medical school.

Rhodes Project: What’s playing on your iPod right now?

Laurel Gabler: I feel like this could be a really embarrassing question if I were to be completely honest. I have eclectic tastes in music (I know a lot of people say that), but I listen to everything from Springsteen to Pink to Juanes and usually keep my iPod on shuffle. This year I actually went to an Alanis Morissette concert, so have started listening to her again a lot lately. I also love Brandi Carlile and could listen to her endlessly.

Rhodes Project: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Laurel Gabler: I got it into my head when I was eight years old that I was going to be a doctor, but I did think for about 12 years (between the ages of four and 16) that I wanted to be a ballet dancer first. I thought I would dance for a few years and then go back to college and pursue a medical degree. I quit ballet when I was 16, though, because I realized I was probably never going to be anything but a company dancer, and it was too selfish of a profession for me. It also caused a lot of body image problems.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me a little bit about what you’re working on right now?

Laurel Gabler: I came back from Nepal intending to start medical school this year, but ended up deferring for another year to finish my dissertation. I was fortunate enough to get an excellent job helping the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to launch and evaluate home visiting programs. Home visiting programs offer a variety of family-focused services to expectant parents and families with new babies and young children. They address issues such as maternal and child health, positive parenting practices, safe home environments, and access to services. I’ve had the opportunity to interview the heads of different state agencies as part of this effort, which has given me a valuable window into the operations of domestic public health organizations and health policy. On top of that, I recently finished my dissertation on the health-seeking behaviors of people in rural Nepal and am working to pull that together into some useful reports for local agencies, as well as helping to contribute a chapter on Thai medicine and an insert on Nepali medicine to a textbook on complementary and alternative medicine.

Rhodes Project: What’s an interesting thing that’s happened to you in the last year?

Laurel Gabler: In Nepal, my research assistant and I were going to survey this tiny little village at the top of a mountain. The village only had 12 houses, so nobody was able to tell us how exactly to get to it. We ended up forging our way through thick foliage to emerge at the base of the mountain. By the time we reached the top it was late in the day and we only had time to survey two houses. The sky started to look ominous and we were told that if we climbed even higher, there was a shorter path back to the village where we were staying. It was more appealing than going back down the 45 degree mountain, especially in the flip-flops I was wearing after my boots got drenched. Just as we started down the path, it began to downpour. For about an hour we inched along asking each person we passed how much further to the place where we were staying. “Oh it is just around the corner, less than 10 minutes”, but we would walk another 40 minutes and run into someone else who would say the same exact thing. At one point, my assistant slipped and went sliding down this incline on his butt. It made me laugh hysterically, but then I too slipped in the same exact spot and ended up covered in mud. Unfortunately, this shorter path was not so short given how treacherous it was and how slowly we had to move to keep from slipping off the edge in the pitch black night (without any light to guide us). I was convinced I was going to die and told my research assistant that if I didn’t make it, he should be sure to tell my parents that I am sorry I was stupid, and that I loved them. In the end, it took us six hours to get back to the village we were staying in, and there wasn’t even any tea left! So, I guess you could call that an interesting thing that happened to me recently – not dying.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to your 16-year-old self?

Laurel Gabler: Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Devote your energy to one or two things you are passionate about and do not beat yourself up over not being able to tackle everything. There are other people to fight other battles. I still have that tendency to want to do everything and never to say no to any opportunities that come my way. I had that problem with my dissertation somewhat as well – not wanting to narrow my field of vision to focus on tending to a single plant rather than to the entire forest. Maybe if I had learned to be okay with not taking on too many things when I was 16, I would have internalized it by now. When you take on too many projects, you do everything somewhat sub-par rather than doing one or two things really well.

Rhodes Project: What would an ideal day look like?

Laurel Gabler: An ideal non-workday would be spent outside either hiking in the mountains or somewhere near the water. I grew up by the water, so I am somewhat spoiled in that regard, and I really miss all the backpacking I got to do during the data collection period of my dissertation. I haven’t done much hiking since moving back to the states, but I would really like to find more time for it.

Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to address any one issue, global or local, what would it be and why?

Laurel Gabler: There are many fights to fight, and a million different issues I wish I could devote resources to, but I think my fight is going to be the improvement of the education of health workers, particularly in rural areas. Not just doctors - both in terms of technical skills and in terms of physician-patient interactions. Human resources are a major problem, and I have spent plenty of time in vacant health posts where workers who were appointed didn’t bother to stay because there is no incentive and no system of accountability and they feel no sense of responsibility. I was even asked to deliver a 16-year-old’s baby in rural Nepal because the health worker had gone away from the village for a week and nobody else felt comfortable. I also found repeatedly in my work in Nepal that people were dissatisfied with the quality of care they were provided. They had something, but neither they nor I could understand why it should be so inferior to the quality of care you and I get and why health workers there only spend two minutes with each patient and throw antibiotics on every illness without investigation. Sure, they lack resources as well, but doctors in many of these countries are trained with gold standard practices and then thrown into rural health outposts where they have no equipment, rendering much of their education useless. Although people are already doing this, I think more money needs to be devoted to building medical training programs and schools both in cities and in rural areas in the developing world and training not just doctors with highly technical skills, but mid-level health workers with the skills they might need to function effectively in rural areas with minimal diagnostic equipment.  And although my own interest has been in the developing world, this would be applicable to underserved areas of this country as well.

Rhodes Project: What’s something you’re looking forward to right now?

Laurel Gabler: Not being a student any more. I know I opted to do a PhD before starting medical school, and I am excited about medical school, but I am even more excited about being able to actually use some of the skills I have gained as a student in the real world to address pressing public health issues and to treat patients. Right now I sometimes feel as if I am detracting more than contributing, but at least for the next four years I am going to have to resign myself to being a student, hoping that the end result will be worth it. Of course, I trust it will be, or else I wouldn’t be going down this road.

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