By Corydon Ireland, Harvard Gazette

This is one in a series of profiles showcasing some of Harvard’s stellar graduates.

Photo: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Search the whole world over, and you would be hard pressed to find one person who could do each of these: run 100 meters in 11.84 seconds, design a public park, identify the native plants of North America, chat in Ukrainian, pole vault, bake a cake that looks like a watering can, recite plot lines from both “Downton Abbey” and “The Walking Dead,” and win $20,000 on the game show “Wheel of Fortune.”

But there is such a person: Natalia Gaerlan, a daughter of immigrants from Ukraine, who is graduating from Harvard with a master’s degree in urban planning from the Graduate School of Design (GSD). Married and the mother of 9-year-old Malaya, she is a landscape architect whose early enjoyment of small-scale community spaces blossomed into an interest in planning at the scale of cities. “We can shape these places,” said Gaerlan of a realization she had. “Someone has created all this.”

Her first dream was to be a physical therapist, inspired by an athletic girlhood in suburban Detroit. (She left Regina High School with nine school records in track and field.) But while training for sprints as an independent runner in Michigan, she met James Gaerlan, a molecular biologist who coaches elite and Olympic athletes. Away from the track, he helped her see what her true interests were, she said: plants, gardens, and designed landscapes. Gaerlan moved west and earned a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture at University of California, Davis, in 2002, the year she married James.

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