DIMENSIONS Autumn 1998


By Michael Matulka

The road to Alzheimer's Disease research can take you to some far away places. Just ask Laura Gibbons, research scientist in the School of Public Health, Department of Environmental Health at the UW. From Seattle to Tasmania to Finland, Gibbons has found herself working in some interesting places Yet in each circumstance she has used her back-ground in public health to contribute to the work and to learn something new.

Gibbons considers herself to be a biostatistician, which means she uses statistics as they relate to biomedical research. This, however, does not consign her work solely to numbers and formulas. As Gibbons explains, "The neat thing about being a biostatistician is that you get to learn about a variety of things, because you're working with people about their data." Furthermore, she says, "It's not just 'OK, here's the numbers; give me the answer.' You really learn about the disease and how it works, and what sorts of things you need to think about."

This openness and willingness to learn, in addition to a good sense of adventure, is what led Gibbons to accept a one-year research position in Tasmania after earning her M.S. in public health from the University of Massachusetts in l 990. Not only was it a unique place to work, but the work itself provided its own interest and satisfaction. Gibbons was involved in doing the data analysis on a prospective study on SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), which at the time was "the first prospective data on sleeping positions and SIDS." The results from this study had, as she describes, "a tremendous impact, not only on policy, but on the death rate" as well.

After the satisfaction of working on the SIDS study, Gibbons and her partner traveled for a year before coming to Seattle. In 1992 Gibbonsjoined the Department of Orthopedics in the UW School of Medicine, working on a study looking at back pain and spinal degeneration. Because the study was a collaborative effort with the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland, much of the work involved utilizing data from Finnish populations. The study specifically looked at 126 pairs of identical twins to analyze occupational and lifestyle factors, controlling for genetics and early environmental factors. It was from her work on this research study that Gibbons was awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Jyvaskyla in public health and gerontology this year.

Before completing her Ph.D., Gibbons made significant changes in her life, foremost being the birth of her daughter in 1996. In addition, as the back pain research project was dwindling down, Gibbons was casting her eye about for other projects to work on when the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center (ADRC) caught her attention. As she explains, "the UW ADRC is known for doing a variety of research, from behavioral to genetic," and it was this desire to become more involved in the epidemiologic research that interested her. Moreover, the reputation was that it was a good place to work and one in which you could learn a lot by working on a variety of research projects, all of which appealed to Gibbons' professional interest and sense of adventure.

Currently, Gibbons is working on several grants, including Reducing Disability in Alzheimer's Disease, Quality of Life in AD and the KAME project. The variety of research, the ability to learn a subject in depth and the opportunity to travel have all combined into a rather unique and special spirit of adventure which Gibbons brings and keeps alive in the ADRC.

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