People call me a catalyst. In fact, they occasionally hire me just to spark dangerous conversations, to walk into a conference room and ask the questions that no one else considered or dared to bring up. I’m often challenging. I’m always curious. I’m definitely outside the box.
My academic and professional history tends to get a lot of attention, probably because it is one indicator that something is different about me. I began as a traditional college student on a pre-med track, and while I should have known something was up when I added a history major “because something was missing in my life,” I graduated at the top of my class at the College of William and Mary and transitioned seamlessly into medical school. Then I won a scholarship that would change my life. The state of Virginia paid my medical school tuition in exchange for my agreement to practice in one of four specialties in an underserved area. I agreed, and my career path was set for me before I even started clinical rotations. After an obstetrics and gynecology residency in a busy inner-city medical center in Ohio, I settled into solo practice in a remote rural community.
Cat·a·lyst: a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change; a person or thing that precipitates an event.
The adjustment from an urban trauma center to a tiny rural hospital (one that had not supported a full gynecologic service in over eight years) was challenging. I had to design my own operating instrument trays, stock the pharmacy, train nursing staff, design and implement protocols. I had to create publicity, branding, and marketing materials for my practice. I worked the local speaker circuit and discovered there was such a need for women’s health education in the area that I started developing my own contextualized materials. All of this on top of the obvious transition of moving from doctor-in-training to doctor-in-charge. I was the only gynecologist for fifty miles in any direction, the only female surgeon, the only mother of small children on medical staff, the youngest on staff by a decade. There were no ready-made mentors, no one to ask for advice, no one cover my vacation or call. I carried a beeper on my waist everywhere, every day for five years. I burned out.
In trying to decide what to do next, I kept coming back to the educational aspects of my practice. Individual coaching. Educational materials. Seminars and lectures. These were the parts of my practice that brought me great joy, even in the context of burnout. Through a series of informational interviews, I met an adult education professor at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and she suggested that I take some courses in adult education, because as she said, “What else are you going to do with all your time, Laura?”
One could say that I backed into my doctorate. I was searching for answers, and the coursework for a PhD in Urban Services Leadership (aka “Adult Education”) gave me a powerful vocabulary for my journey: reflective, situated, experiential, transformative learning. I completed the coursework and transferred to an Educational Research and Evaluation concentration, in part to pick up hard skills, in part to buy myself more time.
My doctoral program became my first platform for consulting. Hidden under names like “co-curriculars” and “externships,” sympathetic faculty and administrators gave me unprecedented levels of space and responsibility, because they knew I could handle it. I started online scholarly journals, created benchmarks and dashboards for institutional-level reporting, designed and implemented co-curriculars for medical residents and fellows. I focused on fundamental processes and skills: partnership development, research and evaluation, organizational design, coaching and teaching, and information dissemination.
I drove my faculty advisors to distraction because I refused to settle down in any one academic discipline or content area. However, I also made an academic career of going where the action was located. For this reason, when the time came to choose a content focus for my dissertation research, I settled in the most energetic and innovative space on campus: Academic Learning Transformation (ALT) Lab, the digital innovation workshop of Gardner Campbell and Jon Becker. I was there during the Lab’s glory days, contributing to and evaluating seminal openly networked online courses like Thoughtvectors and Collaborative Curiosity. Connected learning and digital learning spaces became my content area of expertise, and I spent several years on the international conference circuit describing digital participatory culture as the modern approach to progressive education.
After I defended my dissertation, I had planned for a postdoctoral research fellowship in connected learning at VCU, but large-scale reorganization dissolved the division through which my postdoc was being sponsored. Instead, I began consulting work in earnest, taking on projects in educational research, grant and research management, and program evaluation. Thus far, one of my favorite projects has been designing and implementing a Sensemaker study about student experience of inclusivity for a small liberal arts college. Although I have spent some time back in the traditional academic fold (as the associate director of a leadership development institute at VCU), I am in my heart a consultant. It’s how I work.
To that end, I started a consulting business, Bandwidth Strategies, LLC, which aims to enhance capacity for institutions of higher and continuing education. Intentional boldness is our orientation and connecting ideas is our process. I dream forward, take risks, and work hard. I challenge the assumptions of ‘what is,’ configuring concepts and knowledge in curiously fresh ways. I am inherently collaborative, interdisciplinary, and resourceful, and I do my best to inspire a lot of joy in very little time.