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Volume 41. No. 2.
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Gretchen Berland ’86 wins a “genius grant” for seeing life through others’ eyes.

Plan B

By Lauren Gard ’99

When Gretchen Berland ’86 won Pomona’s inaugural inspirational Young Alumni Award in 1996, she had already accomplished a great deal, including six years as producer of award-winning scientific documentaries for public television and a successful stint in medical school. Christy Brooks MacDonald ’86, a friend from Berland’s sponsor group days in Clark V, recalls the letter of nomination she submitted on Berland’s behalf. “I said that on the day Gretchen Berland started medical school, she won an Emmy,” says MacDonald. “I knew they wouldn’t have to read any further.”

Berland actually won the first of her two Emmys in 1988, and the second at the dawn of med school four years later. But her awards spree didn’t stop there. In September of this year, she became the most recent member of the Pomona family to win a MacArthur Grant—an award that carries a $500,000 stipend, plus the lasting reputation that comes with what is commonly known as a “genius grant.”

These no-strings-attached awards are given annually by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to candidates showing extraordinary creativity and the likelihood of further contributions to society. It is perhaps the sneakiest award in academia—and arguably one of the most prestigious. Though the judging panel likely interviewed everyone she’s ever met, says Berland, the 40-year-old had no idea she’d even been nominated until she received a phone call informing her that she had won. The call came one week before the awards were announced publicly, and when told she could share the news with just one person she spilled her secret to her mother.

“I was thrilled,” says Carolyn Berland from her home in Portland, where Gretchen Berland grew up. “It will make everything that she wants to do in the future easier.”

Of course, it has also thrust her into a limelight she would much rather see shining on one of the issues she’s delved into in her films. Quick to deflect attention from herself by asking questions of others, she exudes a calm and focused demeanor that no doubt lends itself well to her job as a clinician and a teacher who instructs medical students in conducting patient interviews. At Pomona, Berland says she was hardly a social butterfly, choosing instead to spend time with a small cluster of friends from her freshman sponsor group. “I was shy, and I didn’t have a lot of confidence,” she says. “I think at a bigger school I could have been lost.” She credits former Pomona Professor Gary Reiness, now of Lewis and Clark College, with pushing her to excel. “He believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself,” she recalls of her adviser.

What Reiness remembers is a student who stood out from the pack because unlike many of her classmates, who caved into the pressure of excelling for the purpose of excelling, Berland was a student who prized learning itself above all else. “She was not somebody who would come in and say, ‘I’m going to med school, give me an A please,’” he remembers. “She was more interested in understanding, in grasping principles, in learning for her own sake.”
During a semester exchange at Swarthmore College, Berland met Biology Professor Scott Gilbert, who noted her interest in science and English and encouraged her to blend them into a vocation. Berland’s ease in explaining complex articles on developmental genetics to her classmates made it clear to Gilbert that science communications was a natural fit for her, and a newly inspired Berland was off and running. After chirping through Pomona’s gates in 1986, Berland moved to Boston and landed an unpaid internship at the public television station WGBH, working on the NOVA science series.

After work she’d jump on her bike and ride to the Embassy Suites, where she’d wait tables to earn enough cash to pay for rent and the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches she and roommate MacDonald practically lived off, says MacDonald. Berland worked her way up to producer, and moved to New York to work for the McNeil/Lehrer News Hour.
Then, after six years in television she decided to call it quits and become a doctor.
“When I got into medical school I didn’t think I’d combine two careers,” she says.

Her separation from film didn’t last long. During her fourth year in medical school at Oregon Health Sciences University, Berland won a $10,000 grant to give cameras to a handful of incarcerated teenagers who filmed their lives for five months. She calls that first project overly ambitious, and the resulting film didn’t go far, but it made her realize there was a way to combine her passion for cinematic storytelling with her training as a physician. So when Berland started her residency at Washington University Medical Center in St. Louis, instead of taking an elective course in dermatology, she made another film. This time, she tossed cameras to 20 of her colleagues on call and told them to film whatever they pleased. She spent three days poring over the footage and editing it into what she refers to as a “little film” called Cross Cover. That “little film” is now used in more than 150 residency programs nationwide.

Reiness calls her use of subject as filmmaker “typically Gretchen. If you’re thinking the way other people are thinking, you might go in and talk to them,” he says. “But then it’s getting filtered through you.”

It was during a medical conference in San Diego in 1999 that the idea for Berland’s latest project took root. “There was a woman there in a power scooter and I watched her for two days,” she says. “I thought, ‘huh, I wonder what her life is like.’” That thought stayed with her, and before she knew it she was doling out cameras once more, this time to three people residing within reach of the University of California at Los Angeles, where she was enrolled in the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program. They included Ernie, who had Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), most commonly associated with Lou Gehrig’s disease; Vicki, who had multiple sclerosis; and Galen, who took a fateful dive into a pool at the age of 16.

Berland visited them regularly to carry out interviews that serve as the narrative voice of the film, but “it wasn’t me telling them how to film their lives,” she says. When she accepted her present post as an assistant professor at the Yale University School of Medicine in 2002, she moved cross-country but returned to Los Angeles every month to check in with her subjects. Four years after the project began, she and her collaborator, film editor Michael Majoros, had whittled 200 hours of footage down to 71 minutes of a film that packs such a wallop she’s mailed out 5,000 copies by word of mouth alone. Not that it didn’t take work to get Rolling seen—Berland spent Saturdays sending out more than 50 applications to film festivals. Rolling won best documentary in progress at the Independent Film Project screening at the Lincoln Center last February and took the grand jury prize at the Lake Placid Film Festival in June.

Viewers watch as Vicki is locked outside of her home as the day creeps into night because her electric wheelchair has short-circuited and she can’t get herself from the sidewalk to her front door. We see Ernie crack jokes even as his ALS worsens; he died shortly after the film was completed, in May 2003. Galen rocks out with his band, shares a glass of wine with his wife and struggles with the decision to switch from a manual to an electric wheelchair because his shoulders are so worn out. Berland, ever modest, says it’s a little grass roots film. “Some people really resonate with it, and some find it’s not representative of their experiences living with a disability,” she adds with a shrug. But clearly, the accolades it has won from critics and disability rights groups show it may very well have a big impact.

Berland views her filmmaking as valid research, knowing still that she operates in a field where research is defined by measures she is unable to quantify using a camera. “If I had published my results … it might have been more rewarded in the academic arena. There’s analysis in the film, but it’s not like a table,” she says. “The National Institutes of Health would never fund me. They’d want to know ‘what’s the significance of my work?’ How can it be measured?” Berland used funding from the Robert Wood Johnson program, as well as start-up funds provided when she signed on to work at Yale. And then there’s her own personal investment—tallying upwards of $30,000. “I don’t own a house,” she jokes. “That house payment is in the film.”

Part of what strikes her as so powerful about the MacArthur award is their embrace of innovation. “They told us, ‘you don’t have to be accountable to us,’” says Berland. “I wish more foundations did this. Most give you money and they want success—they want positive findings. Medicine is especially risk-averse.”

What’s next for Berland? She says she could easily spend the next year promoting Rolling—since winning the MacArthur she has been inundated with requests to screen the film. In late November, 10 members of her production crew, including Vicki and Galen, participated in a panel at the One World Berlin Human Rights Festival, where the film was subtitled in German. She’s been hopping planes and trains almost non-stop to give talks on patients’ rights. The line between filmmaker and advocate is a blurry one, but Berland takes it in stride. “I didn’t start with advocacy in mind, but what’s the difference between research and advocacy?” she asks. “If you identify problems, should you try to change them?”

Berland hopes to jump into other projects soon. She’d like to explore the world of veterans injured in the war in Iraq. “You’re a star for a minute in the press, and then what happens?” she asks. She also hopes to make a documentary on the relationship between social class and health, a concept that’s a natural extension of her work at St. Mary’s Family Health Center in Waterbury, Conn. In its past life, Waterbury was the brass manufacturing capital of the United States, but now it has some of the highest poverty rates in Connecticut. Berland longs to know what kind of lives her patients lead once they walk out the door of the tiny clinic.

“Gretchen likes to give a voice to people who might otherwise not be heard. A lot of people wouldn’t have the patience or the tenacity, but she’ll fight to get her story told. And there’s no payback that she’s seeking—that’s what makes her authentic,” says Peter Nixen ’86, another friend from Berland’s first-year sponsor group. “She has a unique manifestation of courage.”

Berland, who plans to continue watching the odometer of her 1993 Toyota Camry scroll well past 200,000 miles, knows the path she has taken is risky. Few people enter medical school at age 28. Few doctors rent a home at age 40 so they can afford to finance their research. But Berland, who calls herself a physician first and a filmmaker second, has never looked back.

“Sometimes you think the only way to succeed is if you follow plan A,” she says, “but sometimes plan B is better after all, and you just didn’t expect it.”

Berland certainly never expected plan B to include such a substantial cash infusion—though she declines to expand on what she will do with the funding, other than hint that she will be giving some of it away.

“If I had a dollar for every time someone asks me that question, I’d have another half million dollars,” she says with a laugh. But when she thinks about the ramifications of joining the ranks of the 682 Americans from the scholastic spectrum who have been named MacArthur fellows since 1981, she grows serious. “With opportunity comes substantial responsibility,” she says. “You have to really think about how you can use that in a way that broadens your experience, improves society and encourages other people to try things that they hadn’t thought of trying.”

From the looks of it, she has done all of these things already.

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