Catherine Koola: Laughing all the way

April 6, 2016
Rock n' Rollins

By Susan Carini

"Why are you here?"

That's the question Catherine Koola got at age 16 when she joined a workshop in Houston, Texas, on laughter yoga. The question came from her puzzled fellow participants, a group of people decades older and suffering in a variety of ways — from depression, divorce, cancer.

For Koola — now an MPH student at Rollins — it was (and wasn't) a laughing matter. Crazy as the notion seemed, she wanted to test its serious side. Her attendance was an early sign that she would follow her deep curiosity almost anywhere.

Koola, whose family emigrated from southern India when she was six, first heard of laughter yoga while watching a Bollywood movie. The protagonist was suffering from depression, and his doctor suggested a laughter club. Soon the character was standing in a Mumbai park with others, throwing his hands in the air and laughing.

"I realized," she says, "that I wake up every morning happy. Other people don't. I was in a position to offer some measure of happiness to people who didn't have it."

The best medicine

Following certification, Koola headed back to her high school in College Station, Texas, and formed Club LOL. Founded to relieve stress for teachers and students, it achieved some success; however, as Koola acknowledges, "It was difficult to motivate people to stand around and laugh after school."

She also took laughter yoga to an assisted-living facility in her area and was pleased to see the benefits for residents — a population especially susceptible to depression. "Laughter," says Koola, "doesn't have language or cultural barriers. It is understood universally."

A scholarship student at Texas A&M University, Koola majored in psychology and minored in neuroscience. When her grandfather experienced declining cognition, she and her mother attended an Alzheimer's lecture by a Texas A&M professor.

Koola introduced herself to him afterward and ended up working in his lab the remainder of the year — long enough to discover what balances her needs as a researcher. She can keep her head down for periods, absorbed in intellectually demanding but isolating tasks. Eventually, though, she welcomes the return of human interaction.

An internship with the National Institute on Drug Abuse at age 19 was the perfect blend of factors. She describes being "dropped into the middle of Philadelphia, which was in some ways startling. Growing up in College Station, Texas, I had lived in a bubble."

What she learned, following interactions with heroin-dependent patients, was that "people are not independently choosing to use. There are other underlying factors.

"That is the foundation of public health, identifying and understanding the influences that can cause adverse health outcomes."

Pitch perfect

While at Texas A&M, Koola discovered her musical side, joining Swaram a cappella, a South Asian fusion group. "Singing with other people, especially when the blend is good — there is nothing like it," she says.

At Rollins, in the first lonely days as her class arrived, Koola posted on Facebook about starting an amateur music group. Rock n' Rollins soon formed with the mission of performing public health parodies. Koola wrote the lyrics for "Get Your Flu Shot," based on "I'm Yours" by Jason Mraz; they also did a Soundcloud recording to "Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?" — from the movie "Frozen" — for "Do You Wanna Go Get Tested?"

Koola plays the ukulele, swearing she knows only the four chords that came with the box. Of the group, she is less modest, vowing, "You will be taken with their talent." They performed at the recent Rollins anniversary celebration, made a video, and have their own Facebook page.

Mastering public health

Koola began on the behavioral sciences and health track, then switched to epidemiology last spring and says, "I have absolutely loved it. I feel fulfilled."

In her first year, she worked at the Sleep Health Clinic, aiding a study of hypersomnia patients that was testing the effectiveness of the drug flumazenil. Koola's role was to help transition from paper to electronic data collection and identify trends in the process. The drug proved clinically effective, and Koola was included as a coauthor in a publication that is in press.

Last summer's work experience led to her thesis. Koola is seeking a Mental Health Certificate as part of her MPH and completed her practicum at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. One of the projects she worked on involved marijuana use during pregnancy. Her thesis is on comorbid mental health conditions in pregnant women who use marijuana.

Koola currently works as a research analyst with the Emory Healthcare Veterans Program, looking at drug effects in conjunction with virtual reality exposure therapy to determine reductions in distress symptoms for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Her time at Rollins has harmonized her youthful love for laughter with a holistic understanding of the public health field. As graduation nears, she is looking for a position that will combine her knowledge of epidemiology, substance abuse and mental health.

Among other aspirations, Koola hopes one day to reestablish a laughter club. No kidding.