For this month’s edition of Career Corner, we decided to speak with Dr. Debra A. Cooper, a pharmacologist who has applied her knowledge and expertise towards implementing evidence-based policy in the state of California. Dr. Cooper received her undergraduate degree in psychology from Duke University and her PhD in Neuroscience from Emory University where she focused on the inhibition of dopamine hydroxylase as a possible treatment for cocaine addiction. She went on to complete her postdoctoral training at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. In 2014, Dr. Cooper was chosen as one of the ASPET Washington Fellows. The following year, she was selected to serve as a California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) Policy Fellow where she was placed in the California State Senate Office of Research. Currently, Dr. Cooper serves as a Principal Consultant for the California State Senate Appropriations Committee.
Previously, you participated in the ASPET Washington Fellows Program. Could you please describe how this experience helped prepare you for your time as a CCST Fellow?
Prior to participating in the ASPET Washington Fellows Program, I was interested in science policy, but I didn’t really know what that meant or how to participate in science policy. Traveling to Capitol Hill as a Washington Fellow was the first time I appreciated what it was to advocate for science in the legislature. Though I still had more to learn about all the nuances of legislative work and the role of science policy and science advocacy, the Washington Fellows program was my first true foray into the intersection of science and policy. That experience solidified my interest in pursuing science policy as a career option.
Describe how your technical knowledge of neuropharmacology and the transferable skills gained from your research experience have helped you be successful in
Working in the legislature means that I often have to be a bit of a generalist, so I’m not always directly working on policy issues that are directly related to science. When those opportunities do occur, I am able to use my technical knowledge directly. For instance, in my first year working in the California State Senate, I worked on a project that concerned the prescribing of medications for opiate use in a population that uses Medicaid. For this particular project, I had to describe the mechanisms of action of opiates and treatments as well as the policy aspects of prescribing these drugs. This was my first – but not last – experience directly using my neuropharmacology knowledge in my new role in policy. On a daily basis, I’m using transferable skills that I developed from my research experience. The most important of which would be communication and simplifying complex content for various audiences. Additionally, the ability to quickly analyze information to draw a conclusion and to use problem solving skills to readjust when something unexpected happens are transferable skills that I use often.
One unique aspect of the CCST program is that it focuses on state-specific policy issues rather than federal issues. What are some advantages to working within the state government that you don’t get to experience at the national level?
Because I have not worked in government at the national level, my comparison is limited, but can be gleaned from conversations that I have had with colleagues who work or have worked at the national level. One advantage is that, at least in California, there are more bills that are discussed and passed throughout a legislative session than on the national level. This leads to more opportunity to work on multiple bills and a chance to actually experience the effects of those bills turned into law. Another advantage is that many bills that are passed on the state level affect ones day-to-day life more notably than bills on the national level. Staffers working in state government, therefore, have more opportunity to affect change on policies that directly impact themselves and their peers.
Briefly describe a typical day as a Principal Consultant. What do you like the most about your job? What is one thing you wish you could change about your job?
A “typical day” as a consultant depends on the time of year. At the height of the legislative schedule, my typical day consists of meeting with lobbyists and other staffers in the legislature who are trying to get their bills passed. I ask them questions that help inform me about the bill at hand and together we brainstorm methods to improve the bill, if possible. Once I’ve finished my meetings and/or if I have a large break of time between meetings, I write up analyses on the bills based on information that I’ve gleaned from those meetings and my own background research.
In my office in the Senate Appropriations Committee, I cover a variety of issues – some of which I had no experience before working in this office. Because of that, I feel like I am always learning something new. Just when I think I’ve gotten a handle on a particular issue, I’m thrown a curveball and have to do more research to more fully understand what is in front of me. The issues therefore never get stale for me.
My job is very deadline oriented and often projects come down to the wire. It can make the experience stressful but also exciting. At first, the deadlines were somewhat intimidating to me, but it has helped me work on my time management skills.
Your position as an interface between scientific research and policymakers has many challenges, how do you keep yourself motivated?
It is easy to keep myself motivated because I love being at the bridge of science and policy. Even though my current position covers many issues that are not all science related, I try to find the scientific connection whenever possible. Often, this comes in the form of mental health awareness. I also make an effort to continue doing outreach efforts outside of my 9-5 job and stay involved in mental health policy initiatives on the city and county level of government. Therefore, despite how much or how little science appears in my job, I am still able to advocate for science in some capacity.
A rich body of literature from the social sciences demonstrate that diversity yields better results in groups and societies. In your experience, how has this phenomenon manifested across your career in the academy and policy?
There are different levels diversity that I have seen have an influence in my surroundings, all of which improve any given work environment. For instance, as a black woman with a PhD in a STEM field, I have at times brought attention to the lack of representation of women and/or nonwhite participants in clinical trials and have questioned how particular results apply to different populations. I also make an effort to speak to youth and young adults about career paths in STEM fields. Depending on a particular person’s background, he/she may not have had much knowledge about working in a STEM field and seeing someone who looks like them who did it can help be the push in that direction.
Many people in the policy world have academic backgrounds in public policy or law. Though not unheard of, science backgrounds are much rarer. Providing a different perspective, whether through technical knowledge or understanding of data analysis, is advantageous for ensuring that all concerns are addressed when discussing policy.
Describe one of your greatest accomplishments during your time as an early career science advocate.
In my first year in the legislature, I was following a bill that was being worked through the legislative process. As advocates and opponents spoke up about the bill, I kept hearing that a product was 95% less harmful than another product. The more I heard this statistic, the more wary I became of it, and decided to search the source. I had to go down a rabbit hole of papers to track the original study, which never reported a difference of 95%, but rather had reported data from an arbitrary scale that had been misinterpreted repeatedly. Upon finding this, I wrote a memo to the relevant stakeholders to bring to attention the glaring misuse of the statistic. I was proud to be able to not only identify that the statistic seemed misleading but to also be able to track down the original research and correctly interpret the original data.
In your experience, have you ever felt that voice of early career science advocates are less heard compared to well-established policymakers? If so, what are some strategies that early career scientists can take to make their voices heard?
The voice of early career science advocates can definitely be less heard compared to well-established policy-makers. Even today, I get questioned about why I, as a scientist, am working in policy, as if it doesn’t make sense for someone with my background to use my expertise in a policy career. I am always armed with a response that it is necessary to have technical experts in all fields helping to advocate for and inform the policy that affects and uses that information. Early career scientists trying to get their voices heard must understand why they are interested in science policy or advocacy and use that as a response if they are ever questioned about why they are doing what they are doing. The most important way to get your voice heard, is to be persistent, whether this is being the loudest voice advocating for a particular issue or showing up often and advocating on behalf of multiple issues. The more a person is established as a credible voice on an issue, the more that voice will be heard.