Education has the power to transform lives. It’s a deeply held conviction of UNLV Medicine pediatrician Dr. Rebecca Meyers that began with learning about her father’s experience.
My father grew up living in a travel trailer on a tiny ranch outside of a small town in Texas. His family owned a few cattle but they always struggled terribly financially. As a young man, dad’s dream was to manage a ranch for a wealthy rancher. In his early 20s, he landed a job doing just that and figured he was set for life. A few years into the job, he injured his back badly and was no longer able to do the heavy manual labor that life on the ranch required. Dad scraped together the few dollars he had and enrolled in a local community college. Fast forward many years of living hand-to-mouth and my father graduated from Purdue University with a Ph.D. He was hired as a professor at the University of Alabama. He spent his career there, becoming a pioneering researcher in the emerging field of teratology. He was interested in how chemicals in the environment hurt babies in the womb and what we could do to protect babies from harm.
An only child, Meyers now believes her father was grooming her to be a scientist. “We lived in a semi-rural area in Alabama and our property backed up to a lake. Dad brought home a microscope from work and we would collect lake water and look at it on slides under the microscope together, describing the tiny organisms we saw.”
Her father also told her about the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Dr. Francis Oldham Kelsey, who took a bold regulatory stance against inadequate testing and corporate pressure when she refused to approve the release of thalidomide in the U.S. during the 1960s. The drug, largely used for morning sickness, was later proven to have caused thousands of deaths and birth deformities in Europe. Less than 20 cases, the result of a manufacturer's “investigational” trial, were found in the U.S.
Despite her love for science, Meyers would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in history from New York University and a master’s in the discipline from UCLA — “I loved writing about what I learned about the past” — before going on to medical school at Louisiana State University. “I missed science,” she explained, stressing that her businessman husband, Leo, fully supported her career change from history teacher to physician, even if it meant more student debt. She even returned to UCLA for her residency in pediatrics.
“I chose pediatrics because kids are awesome,” said the mother of two young boys, Mateo, 7, and Adrian, 3. “I knew that I would always push myself as hard as possible as long as I was responsible for the health of an innocent child.”
Meyers joined the UNLV School of Medicine as an assistant professor of pediatrics in 2017, the year the school opened.
“I love what I do,” she said. “I am able to focus on teaching and learning, which are my original true loves. I teach a course called Problem-Based Learning. Together with a small group, we apply basic sciences to patient cases. It’s so much fun to watch students come to those ‘ah-ha’ moments as they realize how what they’re learning in class applies to actual patient care.”
Meyers also enjoys teaching residents at the bedside.
“I’m constantly awed by the fact that if I do a good job teaching my pediatric residents, I give them the opportunity to go on to be the best pediatricians they can be for countless patients. The impact of pediatrics affects the entire lifespan of each child. As pediatricians, what we do now affects children who may be alive 100 years from now. That thought stops me in my tracks. It’s an incredibly humbling realization and that’s why we have to be excellent. When I’m rounding in the newborn nursery, I often imagine the doctors and nurses who took care of me so many years ago when I was a newborn baby and my heart fills with gratitude.”
Meyers’ long-term goal, and the focus of her research is to find the best ways to promote healthy lifestyles for children.
“So much about our modern world is unhealthy for kids,” she said. “Screens are everywhere and the content available on our phones, TVs, and tablets is incredibly entertaining. This means that many kids are content to watch their devices and are more sedentary than ever before. There are tempting, high-calorie, low-nutrient treats available at every turn. Obesity in childhood has so many consequences, including diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, high blood pressure, poor exercise tolerance, obstructive sleep apnea, and more.
“Pediatric obesity is a delicate subject. You don’t want to body shame kids,” she said. “You must be real sensitive, but you must deal with the subject.”
Recently, Myers was asked by the media to speak about the Nevada Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ view on students returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her concern about children missing out on their educations — something she repeatedly stresses can transform their lives — was readily evident.
“The risks of remote schooling are clear,” she said. “More students are performing poorly or failing. Families are stressed and rates of horrific outcomes such as child abuse and youth suicide have increased.
“Of course, the risk of the pandemic is very serious as well. Parents are scared of COVID-19 for themselves and their children and they are scared for loved ones who are at high risk. The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that schools can be reopened safely. I agree with their position. Safe school reopening is possible but will require increased funding. Students, teachers and staff should follow the CDC’s (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommendations (including social distancing, masking, and improved ventilation). And everyone who is eligible should receive their COVID-19 vaccine. We should take these measures now and reopen schools for the sake of our students and their families — and their futures.”