Enduring Trials, Achieving Greatness and Bridging Gaps

For Golden Lamp Society scholarship recipient Charlene Gamboa, PhD ’21, being a trailblazer has come with big challenges — and rewards
Charlene Gamboa, PhD

RUSH Research Affairs legal liaison Charlene Gamboa, PhD ‘21, has been a “first” more than a few times.

Dr. Gamboa was the first person in her family to attend college, earning a bachelor’s degree, followed by a master’s degree and finally her doctorate. She was one of the first two non-nurses in the RUSH College of Nursing PhD program — and the first African American non-nurse to finish it in 2021. She is also the first in her family to hold a research-related professional job.

Along the way, she learned being first is no easy task.

“This is pretty much trial by fire,” Dr. Gamboa said. “But being a trailblazer for the next generation is also incredibly rewarding. You learn a lot after going through the process, and I have encouraged many others to endure to achieve great things.”

All roads lead to RUSH

Dr. Gamboa’s journey with RUSH started in high school, while growing up in the K-Town neighborhood of Chicago’s North Lawndale community. The late Reginald “Hats” Adams, who served as RUSH’s director of community affairs, visited local schools, including Dr. Gamboa’s. He encouraged students to join RUSH’s Future Leaders program, which connected West Side residents to professional opportunities at the medical center.

Dr. Gamboa’s artistic talents initially landed her an apprenticeship in the graphic design department at RUSH throughout high school. Then, she supported Adams’ initiatives as a volunteer.

“Those early programs were very impactful,” Dr. Gamboa said. “The experiences really opened my eyes to opportunities in health care.”

Even while attending and working for other institutions, including pursuing her bachelor’s degree at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, earning her master’s degree in public health from the University of Illinois Chicago and working jobs across Chicago’s medical district, Dr. Gamboa’s connection to RUSH remained constant.

“Every research study that I worked on brought me back to RUSH — every single one,” she said.

While working in RUSH’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center as a research study coordinator, Dr. Gamboa pursued her PhD in nursing science, with support from RUSH’s Golden Lamp Society, including the Diane Cronin-Stubbs Memorial Award in 2017, the Kellogg Scholarship in 2018 and the Dissertation Award in 2019. The society provides financial support for students and programs at RUSH University College of Nursing.

For 10 years, Dr. Gamboa worked with Lisa Barnes, PhD, the Alla V. and Solomon Jesmer Chair of Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine. She assisted Dr. Barnes with recruiting and retaining research participants for a long-term research study focused on Alzheimer's disease among older African Americans — an effort that was easier said than done. Trust proved to be an issue when conducting research in this community, and Dr. Gamboa found authenticity was important when talking to potential study participants.

“They’re going to test you,” she said. “It’s very challenging.”

Dr. Gamboa designed a recruitment and retention protocol to help meet the needs of the community and earn their trust. She often had just 60 seconds to pitch the study, so she chose her words carefully, flashed her genuine smile and talked about her history with the community.

“Human connection is very basic, but a lot of us miss it,” she said.

The team successfully recruited and retained more than 350 study participants, with more than half agreeing to an optional brain donation at the time of death for the study. Dr. Gamboa is proud of the impact her work will have on people who are too often marginalized in health care and public health research.

Charlene Gamboa, PhD, legal liaison for the RUSH Office of Research Affairs, speaks to study participants at the Crystal Celebration of the Minority Aging Research Study in 2019.
Charlene Gamboa, PhD, (center) legal liaison for the RUSH Office of Research Affairs, speaks to study participants at the Crystal Celebration of the Minority Aging Research Study in 2019.

Raising the bar

In 2021 Dr. Gamboa became project director of a clinical trial in the College of Nursing, before joining the Office of Research Affairs. Now, she helps facilitate the success of the RUSH research enterprise by working with the legal team on related contracts.

For Dr. Gamboa, RUSH has continually presented — or even created — new opportunities to keep her engaged. Beyond her work in the Alzheimer’s Disease Center, she is grateful to mentors across RUSH, including Fred Brown, DNP; Wrenetha Julion, PhD; Barbara Swanson, PhD; Raj Shah, MD; and Paula Brown, MBA, former manager of Diversity and Inclusion.

“RUSH has made me feel extremely valued,” she said. “It feels like home.”

Now living in Oak Lawn, Dr. Gamboa is using her hard-earned lessons to help not only her three children but also young people in the local community find their future path. Through a program called Chicago Scholars, she is working to create pathways for young people to health care careers and to learn how she and others arrived at careers in research.

Dr. Gamboa encourages the community to take advantage of RUSH’s wealth of resources — from free and minimal charge programs to connections to the county, medical district and schools. She wants them to become part of the RUSH family.

“My mission is to connect my people to resources,” Dr. Gamboa said. “I want to bridge the gaps. I feel like I am a tool placed here to help contribute to the growth of my people — not only from a health care perspective but also education and economic growth. I get to be a part of that awesomeness.”

She hopes to one day amplify her RUSH successes on a global scale through work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Office of Health Equity – connecting even more people to resources.

“I have this wealth of knowledge,” Dr. Gamboa said. “What better way to use it?”

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