Laura Gerald ’86 focuses on public health and NC’s underserved communities

Gerald speaks with UNC-TV during her tenure as North Carolina’s health director. She began this month as president of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust in Winston-Salem.

Dr. Laura Gerald ’86 has dedicated her career to improving the health of North Carolinians. The former state health director takes on her newest role, as president of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, this month. The statewide foundation focuses on improving the health and quality of life of financially disadvantaged North Carolinians, an area where Gerald has focused much of her career.

Having grown up in Lumberton in Robeson County, NC, Gerald says coming to NCSSM was pivotal. “I’m one of the poster cases for why the school was formed,” she says. “I had a wonderful upbringing, a great supportive family and community, but still, I was from a school system with limited resources.” At Science and Math, “we had the opportunity to explore our academic interests.” Gerald discovered her affinity for the biological sciences. She also took advantage of summer programs and even shadowed a physician at Duke. 

She went on to Harvard University, where she earned a degree in biology. Gerald says her NCSSM experience made going to Harvard much easier. “In addition to life preparation, NCSSM was truly good academic preparation,” she says. “I watched other people at Harvard have a harder adjustment than I did, and I know that’s because I went to Science and Math.”

From Harvard, she went on to medical school at Johns Hopkins University, then completed her pediatric residency. It was during that time that she started thinking about returning to North Carolina. “During my residency, I learned that my hometown of Lumberton was underserved, and so I ended up going back to practice.” A sense of community drew her back, she says. “My medical training was outside of the state. It was clear that I had opportunities available to me elsewhere. In all honesty, I did kind of have the world open to me. But it was learning that my own home was underserved that sparked [her return to North Carolina].”

She also felt a sense of gratitude for the opportunities given to her, Gerald says, and wanted to have a chance to contribute. “I was very fortunate to have had the experiences that I had not only in my home community, but at NCSSM as well. I felt an obligation to give back to my home state.”

Gerald joined the practice of her own former pediatrician in Lumberton before shifting her career to focus on public health. She worked in a number of roles centered on community care, working with the Medicaid program, and eventually serving as the state’s health director.

She is excited about her new position at Kate B. Reynolds. “One of the things that was so compelling about this opportunity for me was improving health and wellbeing in rural North Carolina. I think that my experience working in Robeson County really helped me to appreciate the importance of community and working for the good of your community at large, not just individual patients.” 

NCSSM affected her “beyond her wildest dreams,” Gerald says, not just academically, but in building her sense of community in ways both large and small. She still stays in touch with many of her hallmates, including one in particular, who turned out to be not only a lifetime friend, but a colleague as well. Katie Lowry ’86 and Gerald used to ride back to their hometown of Lumberton together on breaks, and eventually both ended up as practicing pediatricians there. “So often we think about our times [at NCSSM]. It’s funny now, at this point in our careers, thinking back to those NCSSM days, laughing and giggling together.”

After a career full of helping others, she says, “There’s a lot you can do to help people. For me, I’ve focused on not what I can do, but what I’m about, and I’m focused on serving underserved populations. That’s my advice to students — that it is less important to know what you will do, but it is very important to know what you’re about, what’s important to you. Let your passion precede you, and the actual job, and the success, will follow.” 

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