Don’t call them alternative careers — since most graduate students in the biomedical sciences won’t end up as professors. Since I found a career outside the laboratory myself, I like to keep an eye out for examples of Emory people who have made a similar jump. [Several more in this Emory Magazine feature, which mentions the BEST program, aimed at facilitating that leap.]
After a postdoc in Texas, former Emory neuroscience graduate student Debra Cooper was awarded a California Council on Science and Technology fellowship to work with the California State Senate staff, and is now a policy consultant there. More about her work can also be found at the CCST blog.
Describe your position as policy consultant now. What types of things do you work on? How does your experience in neuroscience/drug abuse research fit in?
As a policy consultant at the California State Senate Office of Research, I function as a bridge between policy and the technical information that informs public policy. A large component of my time is spent translating research and linking it with relevant policies and regulations. I then synthesize this information and disseminate it to the appropriate audiences through memoranda, reports, or presentations. Sometimes this information is used to advise and make recommendations for legislative ideas.
My main assignments deal with human services (i.e., public services provided by governmental organizations) and veterans affairs. As such, not every project that I work on is directly related to neuroscience, but I often find overlap between my assignments and my academic background. For instance, the intersection of mental health and veterans affairs services is an important topic that bridges my backgrounds. Even when Iâ€™m working on issues that donâ€™t directly link to mental health, the years that I spent analyzing research and statistics comes in handy when evaluating relevant documents.
Describe your graduate research at Emory.
I had co-advisors while working on my PhD at Emory â€“ Drs. David Weinshenker and Leonard Howell. My dissertation research focused on one question answered with two different model animals: rats (Weinshenker lab) and squirrel monkeys (Howell lab). I was studying the effectiveness of a drug, nepicastat, in reducing rates of relapse to cocaine abuse. Nepicastat blocks an enzyme (dopamine beta-hydoxylase) which is crucial for converting the neurochemical dopamine into the neurochemical norepinephrine. Both of these neurochemicals are involved in responses to cocaine, and we hypothesized that nepicastat could help in regulating these neurochemicals to prevent relapse.
When did you become interested in a policy type position? Did you think about it atÂ Emory? Are there any resources/programs atÂ EmoryÂ you found helpful in figuring out your career path?
I started exploring non-academic options while at Emory and continued this exploration into my postdoc. After learning about a few different options and talking to a few people, I narrowed those options to either science policy or science communication. Both of my advisors were very supportive of my goals and helped in any way that they could.
While in grad school, I attended most of the â€œPathways Beyond the Professorateâ€ and alternate careers in science panels that were hosted at Emory. Additionally, in my 4th and 5th year as a graduate student, I enrolled in the Certificate Program in Translational Research (CPTR). From the program, I was able to understand more concretely how basic research, clinical research, advocacy, and policy were inter-connected and that there were many ways to be a liaison between the fields.
Â Do you have any advice for grad students/postdocs about useful skills/activities to practice while they’re atÂ Emory?
The greatest lesson that Iâ€™ve learned from moving out of academia is that there are so many transferable skills that we develop during our graduate training. Iâ€™ve often heard bench scientists comment that the only skills they have acquired are pipetting and making graphs, and they question how these can translate outside of research. The fact is, those skills do translate and there are many other skills that arenâ€™t being acknowledged.
For instance, properly pipetting is a pretty meticulous activity. A person who can correctly pipette pays close attention to detail and is concerned with the accuracy of their work. In order to make graphs, data have to be collected and properly analyzed. Analytical skills carry over into many careers. Once those data are collected and graphs are made, conclusions have to be drawn and/or new experiments have to be designed.
Critical thinking and problem-solving are a daily part of life in a laboratory and is valuable outside of a laboratory. These conclusions are shared through posters, symposia, and peer-reviewed papers. All of these are levels of communication â€“ both oral and written â€“ which are fundamental for many jobs. The list goes on for how our work in graduate school prepares us with the tools necessary for whatever position we opt for. I believe more emphasis needs to be placed in graduate school to demonstrate how these skills make us strong candidates in both academic and non-academic settings.