Martha Gabriel Peck ’73 – My Carolina Story

For many years, a member of the Carolina Alumni Board of Directors has presented a “My Carolina Story” at each of the board’s quarterly meetings, and we are sharing their stories with all of our alumni. Hark the Sound.

“But here’s my philosophy:  While it’s important to set goals … it’s also crucial to keep an open mind about unexpected opportunities that may be out of your usual comfort zone.”

Oct. 7, 2023

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Good morning.  Last May, I celebrated my 50th reunion, so I’ve had more than a few years to live My Carolina Story and what a challenge to provide a 10 minute synopsis, but I’ll try.

Join me in visualizing my recurring day dream. We’re all sitting in the Dean Dome; it’s the beginning of a basketball game and the jumbo-tron starts streaming a video– not of former players and coaches– BUT to my surprise, it’s me and this is what’s showing:

14: 14 years at Carolina and 3 degrees

7:   7 years at the School of Pharmacy, ranked first in the nation

4:   4 years in Medical School, number 5 in primary care.

3:   3 years in Residency, number 3 in Family Medicine

1:   There’s only ONE place for me.

This is Martha and I’m proud to be a Tarheel!!

Now, some might think that 3 degrees and 14 years at a single institution is a bit excessive… what can I say? I love this place!  It’s been the source of things tangible (knowledge, career, mentors, friends, life preparation)…. And intangible (experiences, confidence, and state of mind).

My story starts in Greensboro in 1951, an only child of 2 loving parents:  a restaurant manager and a nurse.  I first came to Carolina in 8th grade with a school group. It was spring and I was enthralled with the campus and Franklin Street.  I instantly fell in love…. and confidently announced this was my college destination.  Now, in the late 1960s, Carolina was predominately male and my guidance counselor actually dissuaded me from applying. But undeterred, I submitted a single college application: to UNC, for early decision, and thank goodness I was accepted! I had zilch as a fall back option!

Being an undergraduate at Chapel Hill in the early 70s was a time of immense political, cultural and societal change—and this had a profound effect upon my college experience. The Vietnam war, student protests, the passage of Title 9 and Roe v Wade, the end of required curfews for women, approval of dorm visitation by men, and Spring Jubilee in Kenan stadium. And did I mention there was a 7 to 1 male:female ratio?  During my undergrad years, I met a group of 15 women who were to become my life-long friends—we still meet every few years and zoomed our way through COVID.  I also met my husband, Ray, during freshman year.  He asked me out; I couldn’t go and then he waited four years before asking me again. This time, I quickly said “yes!”

I’ll share one funny, and frankly embarrassing, freshman incident that shows my prior, sheltered existence.   Back then, we had no phone in our room, certainly no cell phones, just a single hall phone that I happened to answer late one night. “Hello, this is Spencer Dorm.”

A male voice:  “Are there any nymphomaniacs there?”

“Umm…I’m not sure…let me check.”

My roommate was as clueless as I; so we got out the dictionary and found the unknown word.  I returned to the caller: “No, my dorm doesn’t have those kind of girls!”

Now, Pharmacy was a rigorous 5-year degree and I spent most afternoons in the lab compounding assorting products, tablets, creams and even suppositories.  I was pretty studious and liked to scout out quiet places to study. One haunt was the stacks at Wilson Library where I discovered a window that allowed a serendipitous escape to the roof for study breaks. Some of my extracurricular activities included Honor Court; a student-to-student drug abuse prevention program; and SHAC, a health clinic for uninsured patients.

Today, clinical pharmacy is a well-recognized avenue, but in the 70s it was a new concept. I knew I wanted close interactions with patients and physicians, perhaps in a hospital, instead of the local drugstore. So after graduation I worked in a small hospital in Tarboro trying to deliver my own brand of pharmacy services.  I soon realized I needed more training to become the practitioner I envisioned, so I decided to return to UNC for a masters in clinical pharmacy.  To prepare for the rigors of grad school, I spent a winter in Vermont as a waitress at the Trapp Family Lodge (think Maria and the Sound of Music) and as a ski bum—much to my parent’s chagrin!

Grad School afforded some unique opportunities.  I’ll share two. One was a research project at a local health clinic.  My goal was to help patients take their medications correctly. I recall the man who carried an alarm clock that was set to go off hourly at 7, 8, 9 am and then repeated every evening. Why? He had heard about the dangers of drug-drug interactions and falsely believed he couldn’t take his meds together. Then there was the mother who was treating her toddler’s ear infection by putting the liquid antibiotic into his ear instead of giving it orally. I kid you not! My study showed that counselling and the use of a visual reminder improved patients’ compliance.

Another unique opportunity was spending a semester, as the lone pharmacist, working at 3 remote clinics in the western part of the state.   The Med School airplane provided my weekly transport, and I lived by myself in a shack in the middle of a cow pasture with water that often froze when the temperatures dipped. A Cherokee medicine man befriended me and taught me herbal medicine and took me spelunking or cave exploring. Recognizing this remote area was unlikely to attract a full time pharmacist, I petitioned the NC Pharmacy Board to allow the nurse practitioners to dispense pre-packaged medications that could be prepared ahead of time. This was accepted as a new model and expedited the delivery of patients’ meds. My mountain patients even taught me a new language:  When someone says: “I’m percolating just fine,” they mean they’re doing well.  “Mama fell up and she’s on the floor,” means someone has fainted.

After finishing my masters, my intention was to work as a clinical pharmacist at a local hospital. But opportunity knocked and I always try to keep an open mind.  My opportunity was to join the medical research division of a local pharmaceutical company, then known as Burroughs Wellcome.  My job was conducting trials of investigational drugs, the critical work done before a new drug is submitted for FDA approval. The one small pill you take may require 10-14 years of R and D at cost of about 2 billion. Only about 1 in about 5,000 compounds even makes it to market!

I worked in the neurology section and I want you to envision this unexpected and scary scenario … even now, I’m confident my UNC education prepared me to stay calm, focused, and think strategically. At that time there were only 3 study sites and 18 patients in the entire world taking the study drug.  I had just arrived and was talking to the investigator, an acclaimed neurologist.   His phone rang.  A patient had died unexpectedly!  Was this related to his medication? There was an urgent need to inform the company, the other investigators, patients, and the FDA. That very evening, I found myself in a frigid room observing an autopsy as the company’s representative. Fortunately the patient’s death wasn’t drug related and a version of this same medication is still used today. But it was an unforgettable experience!

After a few years, I decided to leave research and return to my pharmacy roots as the Clinical Pharmacy Coordinator at Wake Medical Center in Raleigh…..But, about a year later, another unanticipated opportunity came knocking when my former company asked if I might be interested in the position of Executive Director of their philanthropic foundation, The Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Now, I didn’t know the first thing about philanthropy except it meant giving away money to worthy causes. I’d never worked for a nonprofit or overseen any grant programs.

But here’s my philosophy:  While it’s important to set goals … it’s also crucial to keep an open mind about unexpected opportunities that may be out of your usual comfort zone. One can always return to something, but that open door may not stay open for very long. So I responded “yes”, had a series of interviews   and was fortunate to be offered the position at the ripe old age 31.  My predecessor was highly regarded and was retiring after directing the Fund for over 30 years.  (Veronica, I bet you can relate to this!) I loved my position at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and worked there for almost 20 years.  The job challenged me and provided unparalleled opportunities to work with renowned scientists and grantees on the cutting edge of research. as well as engage in strategic planning with our Board and staff.  And along the way, the foundation received an additional $500 million, so there was an opportunity to become completely independent from our parent company and to build new headquarters in RTP.  And working in philanthropy made me realize how vital it is to support organizations you care about.  Hence my family’s ongoing, albeit modest, giving to UNC.

In 1998, people thought I had lost my mind when I announced my retirement from the Fund to pursue a medical degree. My own doctor said: “Have you considered climbing Mt Everest? It’d be cheaper and easier?” But my desire for direct patient contact had never really abated– and I hoped it wasn’t too late, at age 49, to pursue my long held passion. And, without a doubt, I wanted to be at UNC! I still count my blessings they decided to take a chance on me! I recall my neurology professor kidding: “You know, everyone starts losing brain cells in their late 20s; it’s good you’ve retained a few!” My oldest son, Jason, was also attending Carolina, and enjoyed turning the tables by asking:  “Mom, how’d you do on your exam? Did you study as hard as you needed to?” After finishing my residency in Family Medicine, I was in private practice with another woman physician before we merged with UNC and she retired. I now work part time with UNC Physician’s network at 3 local clinics. I just can’t seem to get away from UNC!

In closing, my Carolina story brings these three reflections:

  • Carolina provided me with an unrivaled education and the ability and confidence to pursue unanticipated opportunities.
  • Carolina connected me to faculty and lifelong friends who encouraged and supported me- both during and beyond my time at Chapel Hill.
  • Carolina introduced me to my husband of 45 years, Ray, without whom I wouldn’t have my wonderful two sons and two grandchildren.

So…My enduring connection to Carolina is ever in my heart and mind.

I’m Martha Peck:  I’m a Tar Heel born, a Tar Heel bred….and when I die, (praying no time soon!), I’ll be a Tar Heel dead.

Thank you! Go Heels!