Q&A With Gail Garbowski on Her Four Decades at Columbia Mailman

May 13, 2019

Gail Garbowski, MPH 1981, reported to work at the Columbia Mailman School in 1975 for what was supposed to be a three-week assignment. Forty-four years later, she’s still here. While she’s never left the School, her career has been anything but static, spanning eight different positions in three academic departments—Sociomedical Sciences, Epidemiology, and most recently, Environmental Health Sciences.

Today, she is the program coordinator for the Center for Environmental Health in Northern Manhattan, one of the medical center’s biggest and most complex research operations. Created in 1994 and currently funded through an $8 million grant from the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences, the Center is an intellectual hub and operational infrastructure for environmental health research by more than 50 faculty across 14 departments within the medical center and Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, as well as community members, partners, and stakeholders. As the day-to-day administrator, Garbowski is responsible for organizing meetings, retreats, workshops and seminars, preparing annual grant reports and competitive renewals, and budgetary monitoring. She also translates research findings so they can be understood by members of the community not versed in scientific terminology.

Over the decades, Garbowski has seen Columbia Mailman grow dramatically. As the School expanded into new spaces, often her office moved, too. Meanwhile, she expanded her own horizons, earning an MPH in Sociomedical Sciences while continuing to work fulltime. Professing a passion for public health, she is grateful for the extended opportunity to work with talented colleagues on serious health challenges like breast and colon cancer, HIV, and more recently, the manifold risks of environmental pollutants. As a testament to her many contributions, Garbowski is a two-time recipient of the School’s Staff Award for Excellence. While she says it’s hard to imagine doing anything else, she also looks forward to retiring in the next few years, in order to spend more time with her granddaughter.  

How did you get your first job here?

When I was an undergraduate at Queens College, I worked as a babysitter for a woman who was getting her doctorate here at Columbia. The summer after I graduated, she gave me a call. She said the Department of Sociomedical Sciences was shorthanded and needed someone to help with administrative work. It was meant to be a three-week assignment. I came in for an interview and I was told that if could read the handwriting of Jack Elinson, the department chair at the time, I would get the job. I got the job, and after seven or eight weeks, I finally asked them why I was still there. I liked working there, but I wasn’t interested in a secretarial career. As it turned out, the department had other plans for me. They had been waiting on grant funding for a research project, and when that came through, I was hired as a research assistant. Three weeks turned into more than 40 years.

What do you love about the work you do?

I got my undergraduate degree in psychology, and I thought I might pursue a career in school psychology. But when I started as a research assistant, I discovered I really liked public health. Thanks to the support of my supervisors and colleagues, I was able to get my MPH tuition-free while working fulltime. Since then, I’ve gotten the chance to work on many different studies. Each was a unique experience. I helped evaluate WIC, the federal child nutrition program. It was very hands-on: we measured children’s bodyfat using calipers. Another study looked at possible causes of breast cancer in women on Long Island and involved collecting water, dust, and soil samples inside and outside study participants’ homes. Another project involved bringing students from South Africa to Mailman to further their knowledge about public health.  One family came here in the winter, and they had never seen snow. We organized a clothing drive to give them the coats and boots they needed. And for the last 20 years, I’ve worked with the Center for Environmental Health in Northern Manhattan, which is an umbrella for dozens of different studies. I’m always learning something new.

How have you seen Columbia Mailman change?

The school and the medical center were a lot smaller. Everything has grown so much, with many more students and faculty and new buildings. The research has become a lot more sophisticated, too. Andrea Baccarelli, our chair of Environmental Health Sciences and the director of the Center for Environmental Health in Northern Manhattan, is one of the world’s experts in epigenetics, which provides a new window to understand the way pollutants harm our bodies. But maybe the biggest change is me. When I started in the mid-70s, I was the same age as our students. I was a student myself. Now my three sons are all grown, and I am a grandmother.