Following her heart

Al-Shaar, with her two children, Layan and Daniel.
Al-Shaar, with her children, Layan and Daniel.

Laila Al-Shaar, PhD ’19, balances motherhood, academics, and a mission to improve cardiovascular health.

May 9, 2019—Laila Al-Shaar was ready for the exam. It was the fall of 2016, and the first-year doctoral student at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and mother of two, had spent hours poring over her notes and texts for her midterm in quantitative methods and committing much of the material to memory.

Just a few months earlier, Al-Shaar had moved to Boston from Beirut, Lebanon. Her husband, who had a good job and aging relatives to help care for, stayed in Beirut while she took their two young children, Layan and Daniel, and settled into Brookline, Mass. Despite the many challenges that accompany a move halfway around the world, Al-Shaar quickly found her rhythm: Wake up at 3:30 a.m. to study, read, and do class work before the kids got up. Then a quick breakfast and a team effort to get out of the house. Drop the kids off at school, and head to campus for classes and seminars, then head back to the apartment for family time, dinnertime, and bedtime. “Whenever I saw them tucked in bed, I knew that it was time for me to go to bed, too,” she said.

The morning of the midterm started off like every other day—except that Al-Shaar’s then 6-year-old daughter, Layan, woke up feeling crummy and had a fever. Al-Shaar momentarily panicked and then strategized. Rather than deal with the slog of rescheduling the midterm and the stress of pushing it off, she called her program administrators to explain the situation and asked if it would be possible for her daughter to sit by her side during the 90-minute exam. When she arrived at the classroom that afternoon with Layan, she discovered that the staff had printed out coloring pages and found a box of crayons to help keep her daughter occupied. It was a small gesture that meant the world to Al-Shaar—and kept her daughter quiet and busy for the entirety of the exam.

“It was so incredible,” Al-Shaar said. “And it was so encouraging.”

Al-Shaar has since cut an impressive track through the Department of Nutrition. “Frankly, I don’t know how Laila has been able to balance all of her responsibilities at the same time, but she does so with a smile and enthusiasm,” said Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition and Al-Shaar’s advisor.

Preventing heart disease

Prior to coming to Harvard Chan School as a student, Al Shaar was accepted into the Bernard Lown Scholars in Cardiovascular Health Program, which offers training on cardiovascular disease prevention programs to mid-career health professionals from developing countries. “The best thing I’ve ever done,” she said of the program.

The Lown Scholars program helped push an already curious and eager scientist to new heights. Al-Shaar had earned a bachelor’s and master’s in biochemistry and a master’s in public health with a focus on epidemiology and biostatistics from the American University of Beirut. Not long after completing her master’s work, she became the data manager for the Vascular Medicine Program at the American University of Beirut Medical Center. It was part of a busy health system with limited resources, though Al-Shaar was undeterred and quickly began building and rolling out new electronic tools for data collection. Like so many developing countries, Lebanon is seeing rates of heart disease and diabetes tick higher and higher, a trend Al-Shaar watched play out at the hospital every day.

During her time as a Lown Scholar in 2014-2015, she worked closely with Willett and loaded up on intensive summer courses as a non-degree student. The more time she spent in Boston, the more she realized that an MPH wasn’t enough for her ambitions. While cardiovascular diseases were a major problem in Lebanon, there was no good long-term data that could actually be analyzed and used to craft interventions and policies. The Lown Scholars program made Al-Shaar determined to accomplish two goals: Establish the first longitudinal cohort study in Lebanon to examine cardiovascular diseases and earn a PhD from Harvard Chan School.

It wasn’t long before the medical center gave her the green light to start recruiting participants for the study. Then in February 2016 she received an email from Harvard Chan School’s admissions office letting her know that she had been accepted. “I was just so happy,” she said.

Supportive environment

As a doctoral student, Al-Shaar’s work has made waves. For one assignment, she and a few classmates conducted a review of the scientific literature on the health effects of energy drinks. It was a subject of particular interest as Al-Shaar recalls that when she was younger and working long hours, she’d often down a can of the sugar-sweetened, caffeinated beverages. The literature review was so thorough and timely that it was published in the journal of Frontiers in Public Health and garnered international news coverage.

Al-Shaar’s peers and mentors have also recognized her as an emerging leader in public health. She was nominated to the Council on Epidemiology and Prevention Early Career Development Committee, received the Prajna Chair’s Scholarship in Public Health Nutrition, and awarded two years of research funding from the American Heart Association. With that funding, she used data from the Nurses’ Health Study and Health Professionals Study to explore the association between physical activity and mortality among people who had myocardial infarction.

The work laid the foundation for her thesis, which took a critical look at the so-called obesity paradox, or the idea that people who were overweight or obese might have better survival rates after a heart attack than people in a healthy weight range. “It was a particularly difficult thesis topic,” Willett said. “And she developed a novel approach that has clarified the longstanding paradox.”

In short, Al-Shaar’s thesis showed that there was no benefit for being overweight or obese. The “paradox” seen in earlier studies was because some of those in the healthy weight range were there because they had lost weight without increasing their physical activity or improving their diet, and thus the weight loss was likely due to the severity of their heart disease.

Perhaps most impressive is that Al-Shaar, who will soon begin as a postdoctoral fellow in the Nutrition Department, completed her PhD in under three years. For all her time at the school, one of her best memories remains the day of her midterm, when her daughter was sick and the department went out of their way to provide her with coloring pages and crayons.

“Many universities can provide a really great education, but the encouragement and the support that you get from everyone at Harvard Chan School is just so incredible,” she said. “During my time here, I’ve always felt that everyone wants the best for me and my family, and that’s what really motivates me.”

Chris Sweeney

Photo: Sarah Sholes