This week’s spotlight features a rockstar PT who works in women’s/public/global/digital health. She is the co-founder of Mama LLC, and you’ll love reading her career journey!
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What is your full name and title at your current job?
Laura Keyser, PT, DPT, MPH
Co-founder, Mama LLC
Senior Manager of Medical Affairs: Renovia;
Where are you located?
Where did you go to PT school, and what year did you graduate?
University of California, San Francisco; MS – 2007, DPT – 2008
What did you do when you first finished school?
I completed a dual degree program, in which I finished my master’s in 2007, subsequently became licensed, and immediately started my doctoral program. Because I was newly licensed, a clinical fellowship was required, which was similar to an abbreviated version of today’s residency programs.
What was your fellowship focus?
While my interests were diverse, I opted to complete an acute care fellowship at UCSF to solidify my medical knowledge and experience. After several months, I was hired as a per diem therapist and had the opportunity to float to different services, gaining experience in post-surgical acute care (organ transplants, vascular surgery, general surgery), neurology and neurosurgery, and pediatric acute and inpatient rehab.
What did you do after you completed your fellowship?
Once I completed my doctorate, I continued to work at UCSF part-time/per diem, and also took a contract position with Pediatric Contracting Services, providing early intervention and school-based PT in the San Francisco Bay Area. I really became a “Jill of all trades” quite quickly, and I loved it! I learned so much about providing rehabilitative care at all levels, from high acuity and/or rare diseases to community-based interventions.
Oooh, community-based interventions! Can you expand a bit?
Yes! I should pause here and rewind a bit, as my pre-PT school experiences also heavily influenced my career trajectory.
When I was in college, I spent time volunteering in an orphanage in Romania, traveling there on two separate occasions to support an institution that housed approximately 400 children who were suffering the effects of extreme neglect and abuse, and some had congenital anomalies and physical disabilities from birth.
During my first trip, I worked alongside a team of British physical and occupational therapists and essentially served as their PT aide–though I did not realize it at the time. I had declared biology and pre-med as my course of study, though had a nagging feeling that practicing medicine would never afford me the time to build a therapeutic relationship with patients.
My interest in physical therapy was piqued, and I would spend the years following gaining as much diverse experience as possible before deciding to apply to PT school.
After these trips, I was also very clear that I wanted to find a career path that would allow me to continue to work globally and contribute meaningfully to improve the conditions of daily life for those that needed it most. While this volunteer experience was foundational to my career trajectory, I also knew, even then, that I was only marginally helpful to the children and staff and desired to gain more valuable skills that could be applied in these settings.
It was this experience that I wrote about in my application to PT school and that carried me through the ups and downs of graduate school. By the time I completed my doctorate, I was ready to get to it. By early 2009, I was on a plane to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where I would spend the next two years living and working, and where I would (and still do) return annually.
OK, now we need to hear more about your experience in the Democratic Republic of Congo!
I had become acquainted with a small non-profit, formed by a group of UCSF clinicians, who, at the time, were working on maternal and child health programs at local hospitals in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Liberia (formerly International Pediatric Outreach Project, now Global Strategies). HEAL Africa Hospital in Goma, DRC had specifically requested on-site physical therapy training and curriculum development for a new Orthopedic Officer training program (the equivalent of an orthopedic NP/PA program in the US).
I teamed up with Loran Hollander, another San Francisco-based PT, who was familiar with HEAL Africa Hospital and had previously run a non-profit in Ethiopia. We managed to raise enough seed money to support on-site training for 6 months. The needs were so great, not only for the Orthopedic Officer training program, but also to build capacity for hospital-based rehabilitation services, to address supply chain needs for assistive devices and other equipment, and for pediatric and women’s health services.
I know you’re going to tie this into how you built non-clinical skills! Gut feeling 🙂
Yes! In addition to the clinical work we did, I learned a great deal about:
- Grant writing
- Managing donor relationships
- Report writing
- Needs assessment
- Program monitoring and evaluation efforts
We were fortunate to gain additional support during those first 6 months, which enabled us to expand our work and remain on-site through much of 2010.
Is this when you developed an interest in public health?
During these two years, two important developments occurred:
- I met my dear friend and colleague, Jessica McKinney, a women’s health specialist, who was instrumental in enhancing these services at the hospital, who later mentored me as a budding women’s health clinician and would become my long-time global health / business partner.
- I heard the words “public health,”’ and grew to learn about this field and opportunities for pursuing advanced training.
Where did this take you next?
From the outset, there was always something non-clinical about the work I was engaged in.
I will credit Michael van Rooyen, author of The World’s Emergency Room and founder of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, for his notion of the “career humanitarian.” When I came across his description, it resonated with me. My physical therapy training and practice has been a conduit for addressing health inequities and unmet needs of vulnerable populations.
I shifted my focus towards women’s health in 2013, taking a clinical position at Johns Hopkins, while simultaneously pursuing a Master’s in Public Health. While I certainly held interest in learning and practicing as a women’s health PT, this decision was also influenced by my keen recognition that this is an underserved patient population—both in the U.S. and globally.
Prior to my joining Hopkins in the summer of 2013, I had spent 4 months living and working at a rural hospital in India, and then traveled twice to DRC for two separate consultancies. One of those trips was supported by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and the international NGO, EngenderHealth, with a specific focus on physical therapy capacity building for women with obstetric fistula. My colleague, Jessica McKinney, and I took our first trip to Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, DRC. Founded by Dr. Denis Mukwege (recipient of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize), Panzi Hospital specializes in treating gynecologic injuries from obstetric trauma and sexual violence.
After this trip, both Jessica and I were compelled to continue to work with Panzi Hospital. Unfortunately, the grant that supported this 2013 trip ended, and it wasn’t until 2015 that we re-engaged with EngenderHealth as part of the USAID-funded Fistula Care Plus program.
To be clear, we heavily pursued continuation of this work in the interim between 2013-2015, including a last-minute trip to Washington, D.C. to attend a panel discussion with representatives from UNFPA and EngenderHealth.
I even re-scheduled my patients, in order to make the trek from Baltimore, which turned out to be very fortuitous, as we landed a 1-year contract with EngenderHealth that covered travel costs to sites in DRC and Nigeria, as well as creation of training materials, surveys/research, and conference attendance to report on our work. It was an incredible year – I traveled to Africa four times in 2016 (DRC, Nigeria, and a WCPT-supported trip to Niger), building strong relationships with local and international partners, completed my MPH, and somehow maintained two part-time clinical practices (Hopkins + small, cash-based PT practice).
What is Mama LLC?
Around this time, Jessica and I began to consider formalizing our partnership and conceived of Mama LLC, a consulting agency specializing in women’s health and development.
We had often discussed the overlap of our work abroad and in the US, identifying a continuum of women’s health needs around the world that we felt compelled and equipped to address. We also agreed that, while creating a non-profit organization has merit, it might limit our scope and create some obstacles to achieving our goals.
While we do not get the benefits of tax-exempt status, we both appreciate the ability to be nimble and autonomous, and this platform allows us to accept corporate contracts that can offset under- or unpaid global health work. At the same time, it also allows us to engage with other non-profit entities as consultants.
We established our business partnership in January 2017, just before we landed our first contract with Renovia Inc. – a women’s health start-up with a focus on digital therapeutic solutions for pelvic floor disorders.
What types of products or services does Mama LLC offer?
- Technical/content writing (web content, blogs, academic writing)
- Research planning, implementation, & publication (literature review, study design, analysis)
- Strategic advising and clinical support (related to women’s health, rehabilitation and/or population health needs)
- Education/Training (on-site training, webinars, curriculum development)
Are you still treating patients, or are you solely non-clinical?
I maintained a very small practice in Baltimore until March 2020, about ½ to 1 day per week at most. Since the pandemic, I opted to stop treating patients, relocated to California, and joined Renovia full-time.
How long have you been the Senior Manager of Medical Affairs at Renovia?
I have worked with Renovia as a consultant for awhile, and have worked full-time with them as Senior Manager of Medical Affairs since May, 2021.
Did you get any special certifications or training along the way to help you get into your current role?
I pursued an MPH (master of public health) at Johns Hopkins, completing my degree in 2016.
What’s a typical day or week in the life like for you? What types of tasks and responsibilities fill your time?
My work with Renovia is similar to my work when I was as a consultant for their company—though I am now more immersed in several key projects, including:
- Product/app development
- Clinical research
- Liaising with women’s health providers and researchers in the community
- Providing support to our commercial team
Are you still doing other consulting or other side projects, now that you’re a full-time Senior Manager of Medical Affairs?
Currently, I am managing several additional projects, including a one-year project with EngenderHealth for translation and dissemination of training materials for women’s health physiotherapy capacity-building (English, French, Portuguese, Swahili editions will be available, open-access by March 2021), and a collaborative research project with UCSF aimed at improving reintegration for women with obstetric fistula in Uganda.
I am also working on several publications, including co-authoring a book chapter about social determinants of health for Lifestyle Medicine in Physical Therapy (co-author Dawn Magnusson, PT, PhD; editors Ginger Garner and Joe Tata).
I still maintain Mama LLC and have several ongoing projects. Most notably, we completed the translation project outlined above and continue to work with EngenderHealth to scale efforts to improve rehabilitation services for women in 9 countries, using the training guide as a foundation for this new and much broader project.
I’ve published several peer-reviewed articles this year, and the book chapter (and book) will be published this fall.
Do you work remotely or on-site?
Remote + travel—a lot of travel up until the pandemic, and since, none!
Does your organization hire PT, OT, or SLP professionals into non-clinical roles? If so, what type of roles?
Sometimes. This is usually project dependent.
Did you read any books, take any courses, or do anything special overall to get you where you are today?
- The World’s Emergency Room by Michael van Rooyen
- Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez
- Pathologies of Power by Paul Farmer
I also subscribe to Global Health Now, which is an e-newsletter that summarizes relevant global/public health research and news. It’s a fantastic resource and free to subscribe.
What is a typical career path for someone in your role?
When I reflect on my career path, it is quite convoluted–perhaps by design—with a diversity of experiences and roles along the way. Curiosity, determination, persistence, some risk-taking and an openness to new opportunities have all been employed to get me where I am today.
Do you have any special advice for others who want to follow in your footsteps?
Find a mentor–more than one, even! Identify one or more individuals that are willing to lend expertise, advice, and even friendship to help position you to achieve your career goals.
If you could teach anything to today’s graduate students in your profession, what would it be?
I am eager to root our field within public health, so that physical therapists have a seat at the table when population-level health decisions are made at all levels, including:
- (Inter-)national or policymaking organizations (governments, WHO, etc.)
- Academic medical centers and health systems
- Healthcare non-profits and corporations
So much of what we do relates to public health, yet graduates lack the vocabulary and even awareness about what public health is and what our role can be within this sector.
I believe we can bring valuable expertise to guide decision-making, address health disparities, and ensure other providers and funders understand health as it relates to function and disability.
If you could give yourself one piece of career advice you wish you had during your PT school program, what would it be?
Try to keep in mind that your job right now is to be a student: to learn how to think critically, to ask the right questions, and to gain diverse experiences. Your most meaningful contributions are likely to come later. Channel your passion and energy–yes! But, also, harness patience with yourself and your journey.
I admit, I’ve adapted this piece of advice from a former classmate during a recent discussion about our human rights advocacy in college. It struck me, and I recall wishing someone told me this when I was in my early 20s. Of course, it may not apply to those in their second career or arriving a bit later to PT school.
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