How does speech pathology lead to researching issues related to breastfeeding? After going to a human milk bank for the first time, Gabriela Buccini, a UNLV School of Public Health assistant professor, had an epiphany that propelled her to help new mothers overcome challenges. She since worked in multiple countries to understand different breastfeeding environments and learn how culture can affect policymaking processes.
Tell us a little bit about your research background and training.
My research is focused on maternal and child health nutrition and trying to understand how such programs can be better implemented and sustainable over time.
I am a speech pathologist by training and I started my career working in the community (also called ‘favelas’ in Brazil) as a clinician and as a lactation consultant. Years later, I got a master’s and Ph.D. in nutrition and public health and had an interest in breastfeeding and early childhood development. I am an epidemiologist and have been passionate about how I can translate epidemiological findings into real-world changes in policies.
How does being a speech pathologist connect with your work in breastfeeding?
When I got into graduate school, I didn’t know what the possibilities were for me. I had a feeling I could work with children and the community, both of which I’ve always loved. One of my professors inspired me to look into working with children in daycare and in an early educational setting. She also worked at a human milk bank, so she introduced me to these two segments. The first time I went to the human milk bank and saw the challenges mothers were facing when breastfeeding, I thought about how people could help. I found that with counseling and education, many mothers were able to overcome initial challenges and achieve their breastfeeding goals. It was then when I thought, “That’s what I want to do.”
As a speech pathologist, I had helped children with speech delays, developmental delays, feeding difficulties, and things like that, and it was great, but what I found exciting was to go into the route of health promotion. In speech pathology, I learned about how the muscles of the mouth, tongue, and face develop, and this happens when a baby is being breastfed. Breastfeeding is the first stimulus babies receive, and it will shape their oral functions such as breathing, eating, speaking, and chewing. So, this is how speech pathology connects with breastfeeding.
After graduating, I actually took training in breastfeeding management. I worked in a clinic as a lactation consultant for over five years and accumulated more than a thousand hours just dedicated to lactation and helping lactating mothers. It was really fun, and I was able to become an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC). I loved it, and I have been using all my clinical knowledge to guide my epidemiology and behavioral change research questions.
Why did you choose to come to UNLV?
I spent four years of my postdoctoral training at Yale, it was time to find a tenure-track position. I also wanted a change in setting. I wanted to go somewhere with diversity and a place where I could give to people what I received. I come from a very diverse background. I'm an immigrant and came from a poor family. I'm also the first-generation to go to college and first to graduate in my family, and I know how much I inspired other people. I was looking for a university that could provide me that type of setting where I could serve.
I was also looking for an environment that was welcoming to an assistant professor who still needed to learn a lot of things and where I could have support from senior faculty and leadership. When I interviewed at UNLV, I found what I was looking for. And after being here for a year and a half, I can say that I also love the students I found. I can see that they are inspired and are challenged by the research I propose to them — in a good way. I'm building my research team now, and I have 13 students working in the lab. I feel very grateful for them, and I appreciate the work we are doing together. I am also grateful for the support from my team and those at the School of Public Health. I think I made a good decision.
Las Vegas is a unique place. What has surprised you the most here?
First, because of the pandemic, I’ve never actually been to the casinos! Nonetheless, something I was surprised to find out was how many activities you can do outside like hiking and going to parks. I love doing things outside. My son does too, and it feels like we know all the parks now.
People think it’s strange when I tell them I live in Las Vegas. They think it’s this crazy place because it’s “Sin City,” but it’s a great city for living. We live in a lovely neighborhood. I found friends and met people who have lived here for a long time and were even born here. Overall, these things are not what I expected to find and I love it.
What does public health mean to you?
Public health is where we can promote health. We find the causes of diseases and behaviors and we can change that through educational intervention, through counseling, through any program.
For example, for my Ph.D., I studied the relationship between pacifiers and exclusive breastfeeding. There was a lot of discussion around whether pacifiers decrease the length of exclusive breastfeeding, and I was trying to answer that question. I was able to reflect on how to communicate with individuals, but also how to communicate a message to the entire population. There are different messages across the board. That was eye opening in terms of public health.
When we are working with public health, we are working to communicate things with the entire population. Independent of the outcome that you are working on or the disease you are researching, our challenge is to communicate with everybody, for everybody, and to help everybody understand that message.
My main desire has been, “How can I promote health for more people, and how can an evidence-based message reach more people?” That's something that has guided me through all my research and my studies.
What advice do you have for those who might be interested in a career in public health?
I always say that there has to be something that makes your eyes sparkle. We all know academia is hard. It's hard work, even for students getting their masters and Ph.D., so if you are not doing what you love, how can you do it well?
In terms of public health, a takeaway is that every action we can do as a person, as a researcher, as a public health educator or worker, we can make the world better. For me, in the case of my research, I am helping babies, who are the future. They will take care of us when we’re older, so it’s important for us to invest in education, in a good health system, in good programs to help them grow. By working in public health, you can help change history. You can change our world, our culture, and our way of seeing the world, and it helps make everything more equitable and more fair for everybody.
What is your proudest achievement so far in life?
One is my K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award for my research, which I didn't expect as I was nearing the end of my post-doc. I just had one shot and I got it. Everyone was like, “I can’t believe it!” Even I myself was like, “What is happening?” I think that was the biggest achievement in my professional life.
And the second achievement is my baby, my son. We had a lot of challenges. I was even hospitalized. And so being able to breastfeed him for three years – especially because of something I studied – was really important for me, on top of being challenging too.
What are your interests or hobbies outside of work?
I’m a family person, so you will usually find me at home playing with my son and cooking. I love to cook! My favorite dish to make is gnocchi from scratch.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your younger self?
I would tell myself, “You are doing it right.” If I could re-do everything I did, I would do it without changing anything.
I am really proud of every choice I made. Maybe they were not the right choices at the moment, but I learned so much through everything. I have practical experience. I have research experience. And I’ve worked with different countries. This is something I really love, so at the end of the day, I think I would just say to my past self, “Keep doing what you were doing because you were doing it right.”