Q&A with Alumna Laurel Gabler '02

training in MV Laurel Gabler has managed to pack in myriad experiences since her 2002 graduation from Ross School. The ambitious alumna earned her undergraduate degree from Stanford University, followed that with a PhD in global public health from Oxford University, and is now a 4th year medical student at Harvard Medical School. Along the way she has been awarded eminent scholarships, including a Luce Scholarship, a Rhodes Scholarship, and a Fulbright Scholarship, and has worked in and studied in medical fields as far abroad as India, Nepal, and Thailand. Ross News asked Laurel to share some of her insights and experiences with us. Keep reading to learn more about this remarkable Ross School grad!

You have acquired quite a résumé since leaving Ross! Tell us a little bit about some of your most notable accomplishments in getting to where you are now.

The day before my interview for the Rhodes Scholarship, there was a dinner for all of the finalists in the New York region. The head of the selection committee got up and spoke a bit about the scholarship. He ended his speech by saying something along the lines of, “The Rhodes Scholarship used to be known as the scholarship for people with their futures behind them. I don’t think that is any longer the case, and I suspect you all are only getting started with the things you will accomplish.” I really hope that rings true for me—I still hope my biggest contributions to this world are yet to come.

I have been fortunate enough to have the prestige of being associated with a number of scholarships/fellowships, but I also see each of them as a great responsibility. It is because I have been so fortunate (and frankly, lucky) to have been awarded these scholarships that I have a driving commitment to contribute to the world and to those less fortunate. I don’t feel a sense of accomplishment yet, as I don’t feel I have earned the right to feel accomplished. I hope one day to feel like I have really made a tangible difference, whether it be as a pediatrician, a policy maker, or a public health activist, but until then, I have a hard time answering questions about my biggest accomplishments!

Can you recall what first sparked your interest in getting into the medical field? What drives you to continue with such momentum in your studies?

I wish I could identify an epiphany that led me to want to pursue a medical career, but the truth is that the path was a long and incremental one. Like a lot of people of my generation, I have always wanted to change the world. The question was how I could best effect change. My experiences provided the answer. My sophomore year of college, I spent a semester working alongside a pediatrician in a rural clinic outside Quito, Ecuador. Watching Dr. Rosa tirelessly minister to sick, malnourished children, I realized the ways in which the broader environment informs health and the assiduous commitment required to improve it.

After I graduated, I went to work for an nongovernmental organization (NGO) in Tanzania. It was there, watching a girl writhing in an epileptic seizure in a cornfield, “possessed by the devil” as her family told me, that I began to comprehend the need for culturally sensitive services in rural areas. The next year in Thailand, where I held a fellowship, I worked in the fields alongside a group of herb farmers, and I truly began to understand the relationship between community development and health. In India, where I was doing an evaluation for my master’s degree, I sat across from a Female Health Volunteer, listening to stories of how she cares for patients in her village, and I realized that medicine is not just about doctors and nurses or antibiotics and diagnoses; it is also about compassion and human rights. In rural Nepal, kneeling beside a pregnant 16-year-old in a cow shed, timing her contractions because there was no one else around to deliver the child, I began to fully appreciate the desperate need for health workers and quality care.

I still want to change the world, but the last 10 years have made me realize that the best way for me to do so is as a sensitive, compassionate medical doctor and public health practitioner, one community at a time, one patient at a time.

There can be highs and lows working in a hospital. Will you share what it’s like from your perspective?

There is no greater happiness than knowing that you were somehow involved in saving the life of another human being—there is no more tangible way to feel like you made a difference. Conversely, there is no greater sadness than when you lose a patient you have been fighting so hard to save. While it is true that you have to put up barriers in medicine to insulate yourself from the constant suffering you are surrounded by, and while you are constantly butting up against frustrating bureaucracy in the process of trying to do good, medicine is one of the most rewarding professions in that you have so much opportunity to make a visible difference in the lives of others.

That being said, this year I have come to realize the limitations of medicine more profoundly than ever. I have come to realize that medicine is not a panacea, and that we are often slapping band-aids on problems that are much deeper. We can’t fix a lot of things, and we certainly don’t do a very effective job of addressing the social determinants of health or the broader context in which health plays out. Lots of doctors also have frustrating God complexes, which are insufferable to be around.

When the hours are incredibly long, and the process feels thankless, you look for the little things—the kid awaiting a bone marrow transplant who told all her visitors the joke you told her about mushrooms; the three-year-old who, after days of being in too much pain to let you touch him, is in the playroom and hands you a car, inviting you to play; or the old lady who cries because she says nobody has ever been so kind to her and she is incredibly grateful that you held her hand while she had her endoscopy.

Apart from your experience at Oxford, where have you traveled since leaving Ross School? Where will your next trip be?

At Ross I caught the travel bug, and I have spent a good part of the last 14 years since graduating from Ross living and working overseas. In undergrad, I spent half a year working at a pediatric clinic in Ecuador; after graduating I spent some time working for an NGO in Tanzania and spent a year working at a government hospital in Thailand. I did my master’s work in India and my PhD work in Nepal, where I lived for two-and-a-half years doing field research. I returned to India in medical school to continue to work on research there, and plan to also go back to Thailand and Ecuador this year for clinical electives. I also spent some time in England while I was doing my graduate studies. I intend to commit to a career in global health, so I think there is a lot more travel in my future.

What do you think you have carried with you from your Ross School days?

Ross School taught me to be a very independent and self-motivated thinker, which I carry with me to this day. It was also because of my Ross education that I started to think about the world beyond my front doorstep. It may even be safe to say that my time at Ross was what sparked my ultimate interest in global health, because it was through my time there that I first really got to appreciate cultures different from my own, and it was through Ross that I fell in love with travel. I also think the Ross curriculum was a unique and privileged exposure to the history, science, art, and culture of many different nations outside of Europe and the United States. I recall learning deeply about Chinese history in 6th grade and the history of some of the African countries in 8th grade. It is rare in middle school to learn about anything other than Western history.

When you have free time, which sounds like it is quite rare, where do you find yourself and what are you doing?

It is true that free time is a luxury in medical school, but I am striving hard to strike a good maintain a work-life balance. I play in local Frisbee and basketball leagues. I also have managed to run two half-marathons, and find plenty of time to hang out with the wonderful friends I have made from each area of my life. The nice thing about Boston is that it is a city where a lot of people end up, so I have friends from Oxford, Stanford, Tanzania, and medical school all in the city.

What are your future plans?

I just want to get through my last year of medical school and three years of residency. Before medical school, I had an ambition to go back overseas, likely to South or Southeast Asia, and open my own health training academy and clinic, but the logistics of life don’t always work out as planned. So while that is still my pie-in-the-sky ambition, my partner and I have a lot of thinking through next steps before I get to that point. In the shorter term, I am applying in pediatrics this fall with the hopes of ending up at a program that has a strong advocacy and global health leaning, whether that be in Baltimore, D.C., Philly, Boston, or elsewhere in New England. I don’t have plans for specialization just yet, but am still considering peds emergency medicine, peds infectious diseases, peds oncology, or primary care. I also hope to spend more clinical time overseas and continue to expand my public health research.

Who are the most memorable teachers you had at Ross?

Richard Dunn, Betti Rossano, Martha Stotzky, Debra McCall, Alexandra Cromwell, Dexter Chapin, and Dr. Dave Morgan.