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CDC Women in STEM Careers - Gayle DeBord, PhD

Toxicologist
Captain, US Public Health Service
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, CDC

Gayle DeBord

During her summer vacations, Gayle DeBord used to read five books a week. She especially enjoyed science fiction. They showed her worlds she had never imagined and inspired her to explore the possibilities.

That’s how she began her journey toward a career as a pharmacist and occupational safety and health researcher for a CDC department that helps prevent work-related injuries and illness. Science had expanded her horizons for a lifetime.

On her work in public health, she says, “My work at CDC gives me the chance to help make the world better.”

Being a Smarty Pays Off for College

In high school I liked biology and chemistry classes. But with both of my parents working factory jobs, I knew we didn’t have the money for me to go to college. Neither of my parents had gone to college. My goal was to earn good grades and get a college scholarship. I graduated at the top of my high school class, which greatly helped in getting financial aid to pay for my education.

Meanwhile, my high school chemistry teacher found a summer science program for me--students from all over the country were invited to spend eight weeks working on a research project at Indiana University. I was placed in a pharmacology laboratory to study drugs. It changed my life. I liked the work, I was good at it, and I wanted to learn more. So I decided to go to pharmacy school.

Back then the program included one year of pre-pharmacy courses and four years of additional college. During the summers I worked at a refrigerator plant and a peanut butter factory in my hometown. At school I worked in the toxicology laboratory researching how diseases work.

I was studying nuclear pharmacy and had applied for a program to work in Washington, D.C. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which is part of CDC, asked me to do research one summer. I stayed on after graduation. The work is rewarding because I support NIOSH’s mission of preventing work-related illnesses and injuries.

By researching and solving problems at work sites, we make a difference in people’s lives!”

Cleaning up Real-Life Dramas

After the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, many workers were bused in to help with the oil spill cleanup. I headed a team looking at the health hazards of beach workers in Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi. The workers spent 12 hours a day stooped over in hot sand, cleaning up the beach. We suggested ways to improve their posture and use better tools to prevent back problems.

I started out as a research toxicologist, moved up to a section chief position, and then served as a branch chief for 10 years. A few years ago I was offered my division’s associate director for science position. My main duty is to review the division’s research and make sure it is high quality.

Working with such great, dedicated professionals makes it fun.

Advice to Girls and Young Women

  1. Be kind to everyone, because they may be your boss someday.
  2. Take care of the people who make your life easier, such as your assistant.
  3. Work hard, meet deadlines, and have the courage to step out of your comfort zone, because you never know what opportunities are waiting.

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