Alumni Profile: Laura Rabb, MPH '04

What degree did you receive from GW? What was your concentration?

MPH, Environmental and Occupational Health

Please tell us about your current position. Can you describe a typical day?

I am self-employed as a public health consultant and work with the cruise industry.  Most of my work is onboard ships, but some is also done in the “office,” aka my apartment’s spare bedroom.

Onboard I provide public health assistance, primarily in the areas of food, potable water, recreational water, and gastrointestinal illness outbreak prevention. Each ship requests different services from in-class or hands-on training, operational inspections, reviewing operational procedures, reviewing drawings for renovations, and construction inspections following renovations. They put together a schedule in advance and pretty much keep me busy from 8:00 a.m. through 5:00 p.m. each day and sometimes even later in the evening to meet the crew schedules for training. 

The ships I have worked onboard range in size from 28,800 tons (490 passengers) to 225,000 tons (over 5000 passengers). The crew members come from all over the world. Most ships have more than 40 countries represented onboard. Some of these countries are not developed. The training and experiences the crew members learn on the ship, especially the reasons behind the public health guidelines, are taken back to their homes and they share it with their family. It really can make an impact for the friends and families of the crew members. When I am home, my time is spent writing reports, replying to e-mails, participating in teleconferences, and occasionally having meetings with the companies located in south Florida.

I also spend many hours traveling in between home and the ship. I meet the ships wherever the company requests and have traveled to Alaska, Caribbean, Europe and have an upcoming trip to Asia and Australia. I usually do not have any time to see the countries the ships visit because crew members are more available for training when the passengers are ashore, but occasionally I am able to arrive to a port city before meeting the ship or stay after disembarking to experience the local culture – a definite bonus to this job.   

Please tell us about your path from GWSPH to where you are today. How did you get your first job in the field?

I graduated from George Washington University over 15 years into my public health career. My undergraduate is in Biology and Environmental Health. After college, I joined that US Navy as an Industrial Hygiene Officer. After almost 8 years and 3 duty stations, I transferred to the US Public Health Service and was assigned to the US Coast Guard as a Safety & Environmental Health Officer. I completed my MPH while assigned to my 3rd duty station with the Coast Guard. After over 8 years with the Coast Guard and about 6 months after graduation, I changed agencies and was assigned to the Centers for Disease Control’s Vessel Sanitation Program. After 8 years with CDC and a total of 24 years on active duty, I retired from the US Public Health Service. I had lined up a job with another government agency as a civilian, but “sequestration” occurred just before I retired and the position disappeared. I was contacted by a cruise line asking if I was interested in visiting a few of their ships for public health inspections and training. I agreed and less than a week later Owings Public Health Consulting, LLC was created (I was named after my grandmother and Owings is her maiden name) and soon after I was boarding one of their ships.  Since then I have worked with 7 different cruise lines. Being a consultant was not what I planned, but it has absolutely worked out for the best.

What is the best career advice you have ever received?

Bloom where you are planted. Keep an eye out for opportunities to make your mark and make the job better for the person who follows you. In the military, you may not always get the job you want, but you will always have experiences to help you grow and you can make an impact.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in your field?

Complete an advanced degree in public health. Completing an MPH while working full time is a long-term commitment that could take more than twice as long as attending full time –  it was 7 years for me – and is absolutely worth the effort. However, do not stop with the degree. There is always a constant flow of new research, advancements, types of equipment, regulations, etc. It is important to continue to learn and stay well-informed. Also, each specialty has some type of certification that could be necessary to work in the field. Even if the certification is not required, it will definitely put you a step ahead of others applying for the same position.

What was the impetus for getting your degree at GWSPH?

I knew that I would eventually need an advanced degree to progress in my career.  Most of my years in the Navy were spend overseas well before the creation of online classes. As soon as I returned to the United States I started taking graduate courses in public health. Due to transfers, I took courses at two different schools before being assigned to US Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, DC. GWSPH had a great program, evening courses, and transferred in 12 hours of previous coursework. As a bonus they also provided a scholarship my first semester, so it was a very easy decision to make.