What did you do over summer break? This health policy researcher won an Olympic medal

Natalie Dell: Health policy researcher by day, Olympic medal winner by night (Source: Courtesy of Robert Turtil/Department of Veterans Affairs)

Natalie Dell is a 27-year-old health-care researcher at the Department of Veterans Affairs whose work focuses on finding best treatments for depression and PTSD. A few months ago, she went to her supervisor with an odd request: Dell wanted four weeks of leave so she could compete in the London 2012 Olympics.

After eight years of training, Dell had qualified for the Olympics in rowing. She got her leave -- and, last week, brought home a bronze medal. It is the first the United States has ever won in her event, the Women’s Quad Scull Race, where Dell rowed alongside three teammates.

The United States sent 539 athletes to London this summer. A handful have the distinction of fame, the Michael Phelpses and Gabby Douglases of the world. But there’s only one we know of with a graduate degree in public health who researches disparities in health-care access -- that’s Dell. Clearly, Wonkblog had to learn more.

Dell has rowed since her freshman year at Penn State University. That’s where she also got interested in public health issues, during a sociology class her junior year. “I was very interested in the policy side and the access issues, why isn’t it the same for everyone, and what are the costs associated with it,” she says.

After graduating in 2007, she set her sights on graduate school. She had two requirements in mind: It would have to offer a public health degree and be in a city where she could row. Boston University, right on the Charles River, fit the bill perfectly.

Dell started at Veterans Affairs as a program coordinator in 2010, all the while looking to nab a spot on the U.S. Rowing Team. Every day would start at 4:30 a.m. with two hours of rowing practice. Then there was the 40 minute drive to work -- a run at lunch if Dell could fit it in -- another afternoon at work and, around 7 p.m., two more hours of practice.

“It was really my first year at the VA that my times started improving,” Dell says. “I went from getting demolished at national team tryouts to beating people already on the team.”

When Dell did qualify for the U.S. Rowing Team -- and eventually, the Olympics -- she thought she would have to resign from her position. But her supervisor suggested she continue to work part time and telecommute from her training facility in Princeton, N.J. So she continued to work on her research, which explores what characteristics make veterans most likely to seek help with depression.

Most rowers didn’t have jobs, but Dell found it helped her focus a few hours each day on her laptop, screening veterans who had applied to participate in the research. “I could put away rowing and stop thinking about it,” she says.

Dell tried to take her laptop to London, during the Olympic Games, but her supervisor intervened. Leave it at home, she was told

She went into her race knowing that Ukraine and Germany were pretty likely to take first and second place.Third, however, looked to be up for grabs -- and Dell was set on winning it. Her team beat Australia by 1.04 seconds.

Dell (left) and her teammates after winning a bronze medal. (Source: Facebook)

Dell has some difficulty recalling what exactly it was like to get up on the podium and accept her bronze medal because she burst into tears as soon as it was handed to her.  “To work so hard for something you never thought was possible, to see it handed to you and put around your neck, it really is an indescribable feeling,” says Dell.

After returning from London, Dell is planning to retire from rowing -- she trained for eight years, she says, and achieved the goal she’s been aiming for all along. She hopes to do some outreach to promote rowing as a sport.

For the most part, she will continue with her research at Veterans Affairs. She’s transitioning onto a new study that looks at the efficacy of one-word mantras to help veterans combat intense bouts of PTSD that can crop up. Her last research study, the one that looked at veterans and depression services, is starting to produce results that she and her colleagues hope to publish in an academic journal shortly. She mentions the New England Journal of Medicine and JAMA as her top hopes -- and a possible strategy for getting there.

“I’m not above using this,” she says, pointing to her Olympic medal with a small laugh, “If it can help us get into a couple of journals.”

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