Five Decades Focused on Giving a 'Voice' to Children — Locally to Globally

November 17, 2018 — In recognition of her dedication to women and children locally and globally throughout her career, Phyllis R. Magrab, PhD, endowed professor of pediatrics and director of the Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development (GUCCHD), was honored at the 11th Annual GUMC Convocation.

“For more than 50 years, Phyllis has worked to empower the vulnerable and serve as a voice for the voiceless, and we are proud to recognize her with the award for Lifetime Contribution to GUMC,” said Edward B. Healton, MD, MPH, executive vice president of health sciences and executive dean of the School of Medicine at the November 13 event in the Research Building auditorium.

Magrab has described her career path as a spiral, with her love for children at the center and growing to include their families, communities, countries and beyond. It all started in rural Bountiful, Utah, where she worked as a high school English teacher. “It was there, I first understood, albeit intuitively, the profound connection between learning, self-worth and the impact that nurturing adults can have on children,” she says.

She decided to pursue a career in psychology. In addition to her undergraduate degree from City College of New York, Magrab earned a master’s degree at Columbia University and a PhD at the University of Maryland in College Park.

“My plan was to become an adolescent therapist, building on my success in engaging with young people, both in and out of a classroom,” she says. However, during an internship at Georgetown University Hospital, Magrab was asked to fill in for the chief psychologist at the hospital, who was on a sabbatical. That chance opportunity inspired her to get involved in the growing field of pediatric psychology.

She wasn’t always sure that she had made the right choice. “Hospitals make me queasy — a major reason I never considered medicine as a career,” Magrab says. But after being called to the pediatric ward to evaluate a 19-year-old man with unarrested hydrocephalus, so-called “water on the brain,” she felt invigorated by the opportunity to help children, especially those with special needs. From that internship, Magrab rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the first woman at Georgetown to earn tenure as a full professor in a clinical department.

Reaching out nationally, internationally

A pioneer in the field of pediatric psychology, Magrab was co-author on the first, and seminal, book on management of pediatric psychological problems, and she helped create a journal for the field, the first and still the leading one.

Under her leadership, the GUCCHD pursued research in early intervention, developmental disabilities, behavioral health and cultural competence. “Promoting this interdisciplinary research was very much a new paradigm,” Magrab says. “I have always had an interest in collaborating, which I believe had its roots in being an only child who always wished for siblings.”

At GUCCHD, Magrab became interested in developing policies to improve service delivery systems for children and youth. She worked closely with then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, as well as state and private sector partners, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, to chart a course that would radically change the way services were delivered to children with special needs and their families. Their work led to the advent of family-centered, community-based, coordinated care, and Magrab earned a reputation for successfully securing and administering large federal grants to change systems of care for youth and children in need.

Magrab then took on global societal needs. She worked closely with the United Nations as a UNESCO Chair on Human Rights Issues — in particular, the right to education for all. She also serves as vice chair of the U.S. Afghan Women’s Council, a public-private partnership to increase effective investment in supporting the women and children of Afghanistan. That effort, which she adopted in 2008, continues today.

“My journey always surprises me. I have always loved children, other people’s and my own. I still do,” she says. “And every decade, I tried to tackle the cutting-edge issues, which was to make visible what was invisible — disabilities, chronic care, lack of education.”

Focus on the local

But for Magrab, the local has never given way to the global.

At Georgetown, she has co-led the university-wide Initiative on Reducing Health Disparities for the last eight years, a major cross-campus initiative focused on addressing racial disparities in D.C. The initiative is preparing to launch a plan for a longitudinal study of early determinants and interventions addressing health disparities in D.C.

In 2012, the initiative received a $6.1 million National Institutes of Health grant to establish a Center of Excellence for Health Disparities in Our Nation’s Capital. “The vision is to eliminate health disparities by transferring knowledge from research to practice and to policy; to train and enable a cohort of individuals committed to addressing a myriad of health disparities issues – issues related to racial or ethnic differences, socioeconomic status, gender, disability, sexual orientation, geographic location, or other characteristics historically linked to discrimination or exclusion,” Magrab says.

Most recently, the GUCCHD has been engaged in addressing the opioid epidemic at the regional and national levels. “At the request of the Director of the Office of Head Start, our team coordinated and leads a national expert work group consisting of experts from across the country on the opioid epidemic and its impact on Head Start children, families and staff,” Magrab says. In addition to developing training materials to help Head Start support children and families facing substance use disorders, her team will lead regional meetings to help states and Head Start grantees plan to address the impact of opioids.

Intellectual, spiritual home…

Throughout her journey, Magrab says, “Georgetown has been an incredible intellectual and spiritual home for me.”

“The academy at Georgetown takes seriously its responsibility to nurture intellectual generosity and the new directions of cross-disciplinary initiatives bear this out,” she says. “My own center is an embodiment of that. It is an interdisciplinary arena dedicated to improving the quality of life for vulnerable children where scholarly ideas and practical implementations are formed through divergent as well as collaborative thinking across many disciplines.”

“For me it has been about value-infused work and following the direction that compass takes me,” she says.

Renee Twombly
GUMC Communications