In Memory

Rebecca James (Baker)

Epidemiology alumna honored: Scholarship established in memory of 2004 Graduate Dr. Rebecca James Baker

Dr. Rebecca Baker, beloved friend, colleague, wife and family member -- and 2004 alumna of the UNC School of Public Health's Department of Epidemiology -- died suddenly on Aug. 8, 2004, of a pregnancy related heart condition. She was 33.

Rebecca's graduation from the School in May 2004 was the capstone of a distinguished academic career. After earning a bachelor's degree in biology from Brown University, she lived in Russia while teaching English. She returned to the United States to earn a master's degree in public health from Harvard University and then a doctorate from Carolina's School of Public Health. As part of her graduate work, she moved with her husband to the Czech Republic.When she died, she was working as a principal epidemiologist at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

"Becca faced her life challenges with great confidence," her husband, Jeffrey Baker, said. "She had an amazing ability to weigh all points before making any decision, so there were no unforeseen circumstances to fear. She was always there for others, too -- supporting friends with their decisions, and helping them conquer their fears."

Lynne Sampson, a UNC classmate of Rebecca's said, "Rebecca enlightened others with what she learned from the places she visited."

Rebecca's ability to enlighten and help others was demonstrated when she taught a difficult methods class in the Department of Epidemiology as a doctoral student. She was known as a teaching assistant who would find a way to reach every student, no matter how much help was needed. Rachel Williams, a classmate and close friend, said,"Rebecca had a passion for learning and was a terrific teacher. She had the wonderful ability to reach her peers through her description and interpretation of the subject."

Rebecca's special interest was in environmental health, particularly how children are affected by pollution in Eastern Europe. "Rebecca cared about the 'big picture' of public health, and environmental and reproductive health exposures have this sort of broad impact,"Hall said.Her work at GSK was in respiratory health.Many friends believe she would have gone on to become a professor one day.

Beyond being an outstanding scholar and dedicated public health professional, Rebecca was known as a warm, devoted friend, cherished by those who knew her.Her funeral in Chapel Hill, N.C. was attended by members of her family, friends from early childhood, classmates from years at Brown,Harvard and UNC, associates from her international experiences, and new colleagues from GSK -- who came to show their love and appreciation for her friendship. She was remembered as one whose incredible resourcefulness was strengthened by "dignity and kindness."As her husband's eulogy said so eloquently, "She was truly loved by all and she deserved every bit of that love. It wasn't just that she listened to people -- she heard them; she gave them energy and it made every conversation with her have more meaning."

In Rebecca's memory, friends, family and colleagues have created the Rebecca James Baker Scholarship in Epidemiology to benefit a student from her home department. The award will be given to "worthy doctoral students who have demonstrated commitment to the study of epidemiology" at the UNC School of Public Health.

"This scholarship is a tribute to her enthusiasm for epidemiology and the value she placed on education," Williams said. Sampson added, "It is a perfect way to remember her because her academic achievements were very important to her, but they had barely begun. A scholarship in her name will serve to help other students on that same journey, and she would have liked that."

In addition to her husband, she is survived by her mother, Mary Ellen James; her father, Jonathan James; her grandmother, Rose Quinto; and two brothers, Christopher and Nathan James. She also leaves several extended family members, and friends from all areas of her life.

Those wishing to make a contribution to Rebecca's scholarship fund should make their checks out to "The School of Public Health." In the memo section, write "Rebecca Baker Scholarship."Mail gifts to the: UNC School of Public Health, Office of External Affairs, CB #7407, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7407. For additional information on the Rebecca James Baker Memorial Scholarship, contact Charlotte Parks at (919) 966-7612 or

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12/03/08 11:50 PM #1    

Nancy Campbell (Kowardy)

I knew Rebecca from second grade(we both went to Riverton Public School)and she was a true friend.I moved away from new jersey and in my travels lost touch with her.I remember seeing Dead poets society with her which helped inspire her speech as our class valedictorian(carpe diem!).she went on to garduate from brown,the harvard med,and had just finished her phd in epidemiology at chapel hill.She was 7.5 months pregnant when she had massive heart failure.Her little angel passed on with her.I will never forget all our fun silly times-wham! concerts in middle school,duran duran,staking out robert smith(from the cure)'s hotel in philly and staying out way past curfew to meet him!!ha ha...first time i was ever grounded,but we were stoked!anyway,i will always have a place inmy heart for rebecca.

01/28/09 02:27 AM #2    

Aaron Jaffe

Here's some more information I found about Rebecca and a scholarship established in her memory:

08/13/09 09:26 AM #3    

Jeanine Lennox (Reilly)

Rebecca had an amazing existence on this earth - she must have been needed somewhere else to have been taken so young and so suddenly. God bless you

10/30/09 04:44 PM #4    

Indira Cope

I think Rebecca and I were in most of our classes together. We lost touch after high school and this is the first I heard of her passing. I feel like the breath has been taken from me.

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