5 Questions With RTI International CEO Tim Gabel

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RTI International President and CEO Tim Gabel discusses his 40th anniversary with the company and RTI’s future

Tim Gabel
Tim Gabel visited RTI International’s regional offices in Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia this past summer.

By Anna-Rhesa Versola | Photo courtesy of RTI International

Rarely does anyone spend the entirety of their career at a single company, but Tim Gabel is one such exceptional employee at RTI International, an independent, nonprofit institute that provides research and development to deliver data, analysis, methods, technologies and sustainable programs that help its clients inform public policy and improve the human condition.

This year marks Gabel’s first anniversary as president and CEO, and his 40th with the company, which also celebrates a major anniversary of 65 years this December. Gabel was born and raised in a small farming community in southeastern Wyoming and graduated from the University of Wyoming in 1983. RTI was his first job out of college, working as a statistician and data analyst.

“‘The Plan’ was to work for two to three years and then go to graduate school,” Gabel says. “That shifted along the way, and I kept working at RTI while pursuing my master’s at Duke [University]. … I was appointed to a department manager position and have been in various RTI leadership roles since then. I was sort of a jack-of-all-trades researcher, getting involved in programs focused on higher education, public health, transportation and military resilience.” He married his wife, Lisa Combs Gabel, in 1988, and the couple now has two adult daughters. We asked Gabel about RTI’s involvement in Durham’s new HEART program and how he sees his role in contributing to the global good.

Congratulations on finishing your first year as president and CEO of RTI International. What does it mean to you to be in this new role, especially given your long history with the company?

I’ve had the opportunity to work under every CEO at RTI, including George Herbert, who helped create RTI as the inaugural “anchor tenant” of Research Triangle Park in 1958. I’ve seen each of my four predecessors guide our organization to be more and more impactful, and my goal is to do the same. I feel a great sense of stewardship to do all I can to support our staff in their pursuit of our mission – to improve the human condition by turning knowledge into practice.

This year marks the 65th anniversary of your company. What are your hopes or goals for its future?

From its inception, RTI has been focused on harnessing the power of science to address the world’s most challenging issues. I don’t see that changing in the decades to come. Certainly, scientific methods and tools will evolve, and I’m sure the range of things we do will expand. I envision an RTI that is thriving, with a dedicated staff worldwide using collaboration and innovation to solve vexing problems, whatever they may be in the future. Who knows – 65 years from now we may have an outpost on the moon!

In June 2022, Durham Community Safety Department implemented a pilot program called HEART in response to RTI’s data supporting the need for alternative crisis responses. Can you describe RTI’s involvement in HEART? What is the measurable impact of this program on the community so far?

After an RTI study revealed that many of Durham’s 911 calls were for nonviolent incidents, the city decided to create the new Durham Community Safety Department to further support community needs. In fall 2022, our filmmaking team from RTI’s Transformative Research Unit for Equity (TRUE) brought their cameras into the department. Over a six-month period, they documented the design, development and implementation of the new response program known as HEART (Holistic Empathetic Assistance Response Teams). While our team wasn’t involved in creating the program, our qualitative research culminated in a documentary film, “HEART: Serving Our Neighbors in Crisis,” which documents its journey. Since launching in June 2022, the HEART team has responded to more than 8,000 mental health and quality of life calls in Durham alone. They also provide a public dashboard so folks can follow their success with detailed statistics on the program.

There are now four different crisis response units in the HEART program. How will RTI help promote this as a model for other cities?

With the advent of TRUE and our Narrative Lab, we are leaning more into the power of stories and changing mindsets with new narratives. The Narrative Lab has been experimenting with different storytelling formats and decided that the nuanced story of HEART couldn’t be captured in a report; it needed to be told with a more dynamic approach, leading the way for the documentary process to begin. Now that the documentary is complete, our goal is to disseminate the film more broadly across the United States so that other communities, town and city leaders, and policymakers at state and federal levels will know that these types of alternative response programs exist and that they are working in collaboration with law enforcement, EMS and the fire department. The film addresses some of the challenges and barriers that are often cited as reasons for not considering alternative responses and highlights some of the positive experiences of both the staff, law enforcement and community members.

What is another example of how RTI works to improve the quality of life in our communities?

RTI has a long history of conducting community-based research aimed at improving life for citizens. One such project is the HEALing Communities Study (HCS), funded by the National Institutes of Health. HEAL stands for “Helping to End Addiction Long-term.” The HCS is targeted at four states, [Kentucky, Ohio, New York and Massachusetts] that have been hard-hit by the opioid epidemic, and it aims to reduce opioid-related deaths in selected communities by 40% over three years. This multisite implementation research study will test the impact of an integrated set of evidence-based practices across health care, behavioral health, justice and other community-based settings. The project team, working with local community partners, is investigating how tools for preventing and treating opioid misuse are most effective at the local level.

Lightning Round

What influenced your decision to move to North Carolina?

I knew nothing about North Carolina except basketball, largely based on UNC’s national championship in 1982 and NC State’s championship in 1983. My college advisor was on sabbatical at RTI my senior year, and his recommendation opened the door for me to interview with, and subsequently be hired by, RTI.

What is something you’ve learned that’s helped you improve your servant leadership style?

I’ve always liked a quote from Albert Einstein – “Only a life lived for others is worth living.”

Why do you follow Ryan Reynolds on LinkedIn?

He’s my wife’s favorite actor, and I’ve been impressed at the range of charitable activities he’s involved with.

I hear you’re a big volleyball fan and have played for years. What is one life lesson you’ve gained from the sport?

Life is full of judgment calls – seldom are things clear cut.

What is your favorite restaurant in Durham?

Mateo [Bar de Tapas], unquestionably. It’s our family go-to whenever my daughters are in town. I know we’ve had everything on the menu.

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