The difference might seem small — one letter versus three letters, recorded on an official transcript. But Gabriella Smith, a senior majoring in biochemistry in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, knows how much the shorthand matters.
That’s why Smith, an aspiring physician-scientist, advocated for a change that brought relief to classmates making the difficult choice to step back from their studies for physical or mental health reasons.
Smith helped usher in a movement to reclassify withdrawals by allowing for separate notations for different types of “pauses” in a typical academic program. Instead of only having the option of W for “withdrawal,” a new notation was introduced: WLA for “Withdrawal Leave of Absence.”
“As Student Union, we wanted to support those students who already are admitting that they’re struggling and already are seeking resources, so that they don’t have to worry about their academic future or come to a point where they feel like they’re choosing between preserving their transcript and preserving their mental health,” Smith told Student Life in September 2019.
At that moment, no one could have imagined the challenges we would all soon face related to the COVID-19 pandemic. That was also the year when Smith helped secure five years of funding for the Student Union Mental Health Fund, which provides financial assistance to low-income students seeking mental health services.
“I believe that all students should be able to seek mental services, find a counselor that is right for them and get any treatment and testing they need, regardless of their socioeconomic status,” said Smith, who has served variously as senator, health and wellness committee chair and speaker of the senate for Student Union from 2018-2021. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of barriers to care right now.”
Smith is already doing her part to dismantle some of these barriers. She is set to graduate in May, earning a bachelor’s degree with honors in biology, including a concentration in molecular biology and biochemistry, as well as a minor in women, gender and sexuality studies, all from Arts & Sciences. Smith hopes to combine her passion for working with children with her leadership skills to pursue a career in medicine that incorporates patient care, research and advocacy.
“I’m passionate about working with children because I’m interested in supporting pediatric health holistically, incorporating psychosocial and physical health alike to ensure the best quality of care for my future patients,” she said. “I am also interested in navigating the unique dynamics between my patients and their family members who are involved in the process of seeking care.”
After graduation, Smith has accepted a position as a clinical research coordinator at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, working with Leena K. Mithal, MD, in the Division of Infectious Diseases. Smith plans to apply to medical school in the 2022-2023 cycle.
She was a research assistant in the laboratory of Kory Lavine, MD, PhD, an associate professor of internal medicine at the School of Medicine. As part of the Lavine lab, Smith pursued a research project and honors thesis as part of a team working to identify new treatments that reverse the causes of heart failure and improve the heart’s ability to undergo repair. In addition to this research, Smith also worked as a chief pediatric emergency medicine research associate at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, helping to identify, approach and enroll eligible patients for seven clinical research studies and even designing clinical research studies.
“I’m interested in how research at the bench can be applied to develop therapeutics for patients in the clinic, and also how the experiences of patients in the clinic can drive the goals and the questions we’re asking in the lab,” Smith said. “My experience in the lab has solidified that it’s valuable to have an understanding of both.
She participated in the Biotech Explorers Pathway at Washington University, led by Joseph Jez, the Spencer T. Olin Professor of Biology in Arts & Sciences, who said that Smith was among his top students at WashU. Smith also served as a 2021-22 Board of Trustees student representative.
Smith, a native of Newton, Mass., is the oldest of four children. Growing up, Smith admired her father’s commitment to patients in his dermatology practice. That experience helped inspire her to pursue a career in medicine as well, albeit with a specialty in pediatrics.
“Physicians can serve as valuable resources to children and adolescents when they are undergoing shifts in their family dynamics,” Smith said. “They can facilitate conversations between the patient and the patient’s family.
“That’s unique to pediatric medicine,” she said. “You have to consider your patient, but you also have to understand the family support system.
“A family can look a lot of different ways, but what’s important is making sure that you’re ensuring effective communication with everyone involved,” Smith said. “I’m excited to take on those unique circumstances and hopefully form connections with patients and families alike.”
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