Health care heroes

issue 01 | winter 2024

R. Grant Rowe ’03 long had been interested in science and medicine. Denison introduced him to the “Eureka!” moment.

Rowe is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician for the Stem Cell Transplantation Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, and director of the Pediatric Bone Marrow Failure Clinic at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

“I am a physician-scientist who cares for children undergoing bone marrow transplantation and with bone marrow failure disorders,” Rowe said. “I also oversee a research laboratory at Boston Children’s Hospital where we study normal and diseased blood stem cells to better understand blood diseases of childhood.”

Rowe credits mentors at Denison with shaping his career.

“My experience in basic science under the supervision of Eric Liebl showed me how exciting discoveries in the laboratory could be,” he said. He also built formative relationships with Professor Emeritus Thomas Evans and associate professors Peter Kuhlman and Chuck Sokolik.

As a varsity swimmer, he found another key mentor outside the lab, in head swimming coach Gregg Parini.

“Swimming is an important part of my work-life balance to this day,” Rowe said.

His dual roles as a doctor and scientist make the work fulfilling.

“Being able to care for children with blood diseases and also work in the laboratory to understand the most fundamental basis of blood stem cells brings both parts of my work full circle,” he said. “It provides unique perspectives both at the bedside and in the laboratory that can hopefully benefit patients and drive our experimental work forward.”

Tyler Gibson ’14 worked through Covid as a nurse in Washington state, and as the pandemic wound down, he and his then-girlfriend needed a change of scenery.

Their plan was bold. They’d move to Australia, where he’d work as a traveling nurse and she could work remotely.

“We had been talking about moving abroad, just to try something new while we were still fairly young,” he said.

They started in Brisbane but eventually decided that their routine too closely resembled what they’d left behind in the United States. So they bought a van and began road-tripping south along the coast, to Sydney, Melbourne, Tasmania, Adelaide, and Perth.

“I was working at various hospitals along the way,” Gibson said. “That was about 10 months of traveling.”

Then they upped the adventure. They sold their van and decided to backpack through Southeast Asia. They spent a month in New Zealand and got engaged, then jumped to southeast Asia, beginning in Bali. They toured Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, scuba diving along the way. For a time they lived a life of eat, sleep, dive. Their single coolest underwater experience might have been their close encounter with a hammerhead shark. 

“We had been looking for sharks, and then this hammerhead swam up from the depths,” he said. “He circled us a few times before deciding we weren’t his type of food and swam away.”

They wrapped up the trip with a motorcycle tour through Vietnam before returning stateside for a friend’s July wedding. Back in his hometown Atlanta, Gibson is working at a local hospital.

Reacclimating to working life in the States has been difficult, but Gibson doesn’t regret heeding the advice so many offered: Live a little. You’ll have plenty of time to settle down later.

“It’s easy to get complacent, to get comfortable, and when you’re comfortable you don’t necessarily want to change and uproot everything,” he said. “I guess I viewed that as a challenge, and the more you do it, the easier it gets.”

Now, the hard part for the couple is deciding where they might settle down. Mountains, coral reefs, small towns, cosmopolitan cities — they’ve seen and enjoyed them all.

Matt Christiansen ’05 remembers impromptu, reverse house calls.

His father is a primary care physician in rural West Virginia, and the family home was ideally located for anyone feeling ill in town.

“Our house was on the way up the hill to the hospital,” Christiansen said. “They’d stop at our house first and ask my father if they really needed to go.”

Christiansen was named the state health officer of West Virginia in January 2023. But his path to that point wasn’t exactly a straight line.

“It wasn’t my intention to go to medical school while I was at Denison,” he said. “It almost felt rebellious, like, ‘I’m going to chart my own course.’ And I always loved the outdoors, fishing, and hunting.”

So the biology major and Denison Homesteader headed west after graduation to work as a fisheries observer in Yellowstone. After that, he set his sights on Alaska, working as a conservation biologist in the Bering Sea.

Eventually, he made another change of direction.

“While I was in Yellowstone and in Alaska, I really felt that I wanted to do more,” he said. “I wanted to affect people’s lives more directly.”

He returned to West Virginia for medical school at Marshall University, where he still teaches.

For a time, Christiansen worked directly with patients as a primary care doctor, seeing firsthand the health challenges found in a largely rural state with high levels of poverty and rampant opioid abuse brought on by the over-prescription of pain meds. He took a specific interest in addiction treatment and felt himself again pulled in a new direction, toward the policy side of public health.

In 2020, he was appointed by the governor to serve as director of the state’s Office of Drug Control Policy, a role he held until his 2023 appointment as the state’s top health official.

The new job introduced a host of other health issues to address — obesity, diabetes, infectious diseases, substance abuse — but a common challenge in a rural state like West Virginia is connecting effective health strategies to the right places.

“We have lots of great medicines,” he said. “What we’re not good at in medicine is getting those things to the people who need them. It should never be harder for someone to get addiction treatment than it is for them to get drugs on the street.”

Though he majored in biology, Christiansen said the value of his Denison education was much broader. The liberal arts “exposed me to lots of different ideas and taught me to acknowledge the limits of your knowledge.”

Denison “helped me understand that there is a much broader scope of thought out there,” he said. A public health officer like himself might have strong feelings about how best to approach the opioid crisis, while an official within the prison system might have markedly different ideas.

“I work with people I disagree with on a fundamental level every day,” Christiansen said. “The trick is being able to say, ‘I think we do agree that we want to reduce the preventable deaths of West Virginians.’”

The new job has proven hard but rewarding, although he admitted sometimes missing the type of personal medicine that had patients stopping by his dad’s front door.

“I love sitting across from someone on the exam table,” Christiansen said. “There is nothing that replaces that one-on-one, doctor-patient relationship.”

Rob Benson ’75 spent 10 years in the U.S. Air Force, flying a military transport plane so large it would take up two-thirds of Deeds Field, its wingtips spreading 30 feet beyond each sideline.

Climbing down from the cockpit of the C-5 Galaxy for the last time, the Air Force captain went on to fly jets for commercial airlines for 37 years. Then he retired and “moved to the lake as old pilots need to do.”

But he didn’t just kick his feet up and pass his days gazing out over the water.

A licensed professional counselor, he now owns and operates Altus Counseling Services PLLC in Spring, Texas. He specializes in treating patients with depression, anxiety, and trauma, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder. Fellow vets are among his patients.

“Therapy can allow people to move through difficult emotions and gain a greater sense of stability and peace, finally putting the past in the past,” he said. “Healing is possible through hopeful, future-oriented counseling that relieves childhood and adult trauma.”

“Children can’t always tell you what’s wrong,” said Carrie Barnes-Mullett ’99. “They’re scared sometimes when they’re in the office.”

But helping children past those rough spots is remarkably fulfilling, the Pickerington, Ohio, pediatrician said.

Barnes-Mullett majored in physics at Denison and went home to West Virginia after graduation, where she attended medical school at West Virginia University. She returned to central Ohio for her internship and residency at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, where she served as chief resident from 2006-2007.

Nearly 25 years after graduating, she remains confident that her chosen path was the right one for her.

“Kids are fun to talk to,” she said. “They have fun personalities. And they’re resilient.”

She and her husband have settled in that quintessential small town just down The Hill with their two children — a son in high school and a daughter in sixth grade.

“It’s fun, seeing your professors while trick-or-treating or at the coffee shop,” Barnes-Mullett said. “Granville just felt right. This is where I belong.”

Published December 2023
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