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Travis Gayles

Podcast: A Few Minutes With Travis Gayles

In this latest podcast, Vince Lara in the Office of Communications at the College of Applied Health Sciences speaks with Dr. Travis Gayles, who got his PhD in Community Health at Illinois and his MD here as well, and is now County Health Officer and Chief of Public Health Services of Montgomery County in Maryland.

Click here to see the full transcript.

VINCE LARA: This is Vince Lara in the Office of Communications at the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois. Today I'll speak with Dr. Travis Gayles, who got his PhD and M.D. From Illinois, and is now County Health Officer and Chief of Public Health services of Montgomery County in Maryland. I wanted to ask you about Illinois, and you got your Masters and PhD here. What made you pick Illinois? Because-- and why community health? Because you studied public policy and you studied African American studies at Duke. So why Illinois and why that particular field?

TRAVIS GAYLES: Sure. Well first of all, thank you for the opportunity to chat with you. I love talking about these things and love talking about happy things in my time here in Illinois. To be perfectly honest, it started-- the relationship started out as complete happenstance. I had applied to all of the medical schools. I thought I was going to do an M.D. in an MPH component and had started getting some secondaries and going through that process. And being from the East Coast, I grew up in Virginia and went to school at Duke in North Carolina and was living in Washington DC. I didn't know much at all about the Midwest outside of, Chicago is there, and didn't have any connections or attachments to the area.

But I received a flyer in the mail from the University of Illinois Medical Scholars Program. And unlike other, most traditional M.D. PhD programs-- most other programs, the PhD had to be in a biomedical science. And what intrigued me about Illinois was, pretty much, you could get a PhD in any of the graduate programs.

And so the minute I saw the flyer, I said, well let me do some background research and then google and find out what's there. And I discovered that there was a community health program with an emphasis in health policy. And so, how those two things came together is, as you mentioned, my undergrad degrees are in Public Policy Studies and African American studies. And within Public Policy Studies I focused on health policy.

And to add more detail to it, there was a little bit of time off. So I graduated in 2001 and I had done all of my premed requirements. But I really liked this health policy piece and the public policy piece and I couldn't figure out what would be the perfect marriage or the direction to go in. And so I said, well you know what, there's no rush. Let me take some time to think about, if I didn't go into medicine, what would I do? And I spent a year with the Institute of Medicine doing research on a study that looked at improving palliative and end-of-life care for children and their families.

And during that time I got to see the power of research, understand how research played a role in advocacy and policy on different levels. But what was most exciting about the experience was, the committee, was made up of health care professionals, mostly physicians, who were doing what I thought I wanted to do. They were taking clinical practice to inform how to do research and then using that to advocate for this particular issue and come up with a study and a bunch of recommendations that could then be used by policy makers and policy holders to advance policy.

And so after spending time with them, I'm like, you're doing exactly what I want to do. And that helped crystallize, to say, OK, medicine is the route I want to take, with a component of public policy and public health within that. And again, when I got the flier, I ended up calling and saying hey, I know it's late in the process, can I submit? They said yes, submit your information.

And it's funny, the things that you remember. It was the day after Christmas and I had gone to Best Buy. And my Christmas gift for myself was a flat screen TV. And I'm on the roof of the garage at the Best Buy, attempting to put the TV into my car, when I get the call from the med scholars office here inviting me to come out for an interview, and the rest is history.

VINCE LARA: That's great, that's great. You know, your research focus has been health care disparities as you talked about. And what really struck me, too, was bullying in pediatric populations. And I'm wondering what the inspiration was to look at those as a focus?

TRAVIS GAYLES: Well, part of that was a personal experience, being bullied as a kid. And that resonated in sticking with me throughout. And one of the things that I was interested in at the time, and continue to be interested in, is looking at how adverse exposures can cause changes in your body in addition to the psychological stress that happens. But what happens when you're chronically exposed to, whether it's bullying, or interpersonal violence, or community violence, what types of changes is that causing your body that may predispose you to having negative health outcomes as you age?

As I said, in addition to the psychological suffering, what are those physiologic changes. And so that was the impetus behind that. And particularly at the time I was in Chicago, and unfortunately, Chicago has a little bit of an issue with violence in some neighborhoods. And tying that to my desire to be in pediatrics is, I have a fundamental problem with us as a community not understanding what children bring to the table. We hold them accountable for their school achievement, we hold them accountable with how they behave and all those kind of things, but we don't always fully understand and respect all of the things that they are exposed to and encounter in their efforts to meet the goals and expectations we set for them.

And so going into pediatrics and looking at those particular areas, I saw it as my opportunity to try to even the playing ground a little bit so that when children do come to school or are participating in activity in sports, achieving those kinds of things, that they don't have to worry about the health piece. That they can focus on the activity at hand, and achieve, and excel.

VINCE LARA: I was wondering who your biggest influences were. People, you maybe called a mentor or somebody that helped guide your research while you were here.

TRAVIS GAYLES: Sure. I would have to say the biggest one is Dr. Reginald Alston. Going back to the story I mentioned and getting the call to come interview. And when I finally made it out here, I think it was early February, it was snowing. And I had a conversation with Dr. Alston and we just hit it off. Our research interest, just the personal chemistry, and it just so happened that the person I was meeting next was running late so we got to talk for over an hour and it just fit. And so when I went back home-- obviously, I had to be accepted here, that was a big component, but I was sold in terms of the opportunity to come out and be able to focus on projects, but then to also work with someone like Dr. Alston. And it worked out.

He ended up being my major advisor here and was just a great influence in terms of how to navigate the system as a young professional, a young academic, but without the ego. We only actually had one-- I think the only time he ever actually yelled at me, it wasn't really a yell, but it was over the concept of academic property. He had given me an opportunity to write a book chapter with him, and I had done the lion's share of the work and put together draft and he's like, no, it's a great draft, and everything looks good with some minor edits. And he's like, but I have one problem. You never asked to be the author. This is your information.

And I said, well, I just assumed that when you're working with a professor that they take over and over. He's like, absolutely not, it's not about ego. He's like, my job as your mentor and advisor is to push you forward and push you out even further than where I am today in order to be successful. And so at every step of the way it was about learning more and getting new opportunities to learn and be ultimately successful 10, 20 years down the line. Then be able to provide that same mentorship back to others in the future.

VINCE LARA: So part of the reason why you made the trip here to Champaign-Urbana is, you'll be the keynote speaker at the MSP retreat which is on August 17th, it's tomorrow. I'm wondering, what are going to be some of the key points of emphasis at your speech, if you don't mind sharing them.

TRAVIS GAYLES: The title of it is actually a road less traveled in exploring the intersection between my career and policy in public health, as well as in medicine. And I think I chose the road analogy because it's a good way-- roads imply a connection between different destinations. It implies that there is a journey that goes with it. And even though we focus a lot of times on the ultimate destination there are always-- a road always has to have a starting point along the way.

And the other piece of it is, most roads aren't exactly linear. There's a curve or a bridge or there's something there that makes it not an entirely perfect route. And so the notion is to talk about my journey and the path that I took, kind of similar to what we've discussed today, but then also look at the emerging public health topics and actually show how-- I think, going back to when I was an undergrad and majoring in public policy and having people be like, so what are you going to do with a health policy background?

This was pre-9/11 and no one really talked about public health outside of, you do food inspections and keep restaurants open, and if there is an outbreak. But we didn't have many at that time, and obviously we know since then it's changed. But looking at how there's a lot of the tools that I learned then, the tools that I learned here in Illinois, play out in what I do today.

And so again, back 20 years ago when I started in the process, I couldn't have predicted what I'm doing today. But when I sit in my office and do the work that I do, and look at my trajectory to where I am, it makes perfect sense. And so time together at each kind of sentinel point through my career, how that work applies to what I do today.

Because I think the other component is, it's so easy to not see when you're in the trenches. Learning and doing all the dissertation, all that kind of stuff. You're like, what does this have to do with what I'm doing in the future? Will this actually apply to what I'm doing? And I think it's helpful, sometimes, to get some perspective, to say, even if it's not the direct, for example. I'm not doing research on bullying now. However, the tools that I learned through that process apply to-- there are disparate outcomes in there.

There is a community component to that in terms of advocacy, and what we do in terms of running a health department is a large part of our community engagement, around health issues. Also, hopefully being able to show the students here in the program, now, how important it is to not focus so much on the exact package in the future but think about, again, along that journey and that road, pick up the tools you need to be successful in the future.

VINCE LARA: Now since you've completed your doctoral studies here, you've been a supporter of AHS. We had talked to Reggie about it and he said it's one of the things that he felt you were a person to talk to. Tell me why you've donated to AHS, why that's important to you, and what you're trying to convey by doing that.

TRAVIS GAYLES: Sure. Well, I have had the benefit, both of great mentors along the way, as well as financial support. When I was a graduate student in here being honored to be selected for some of the awards. I've been there and had a lot of cheerleaders along the way. And I think it's important to show thanks for that, and particularly when you have the opportunity to be able to give back, to be able to pay it forward, whether that's your financial contribution, your service, time, or coming back to give a talk. And I think it's important to keep those connections.

And certainly, if you have had the opportunity to meet someone who has been extremely influential in your career and your trajectory, I think it's important to also be able to show thanks-- show thanks for that. And then in particular Dr. Alston was saying, no, no, I don't want any accolades, and so forth. But he didn't have any choice in the matter. But I think it's important to stay connected to your roots and give back. And again, there's many different forms of giving back. But to give back to those who helped push you forward to the space where you are today.

VINCE LARA: Just one light question I wanted to ask you. So there had to be a couple of places while you were here in Chambana, as we call it. That big impact on you. Can you talk about a couple, on-or-off-campus, that you really remember fondly?

TRAVIS GAYLES: Well, I was a tennis player. So I played lots of tennis, and the tennis seems very good here. So I had the opportunity to spend time playing and watching. Also happen to be a big college basketball fan, and my early tenure here was when the team went to the finals and had some pretty good seasons during that time.

It's been interesting seeing that downtown. I haven't been back since oh, probably, maybe 10 years. But it's been interesting to see how the trajectory of the town has changed. It's been developed. I think the place that I probably spent the most time here was in the law library. That's where I studied. And so walking over here, I walked by it and had lots of fond memories there. So I think those are probably the places where I spent the most time in activities. I spent the most time doing in terms of trying to achieve balance and being successful.

VINCE LARA: Well, thank you Dr. Gayles for your time. I appreciate it.


VINCE LARA: My thanks to Dr. Travis Gayles. This has been A Few Minutes with.

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