Alumni Spotlight: Debra Cooper

by Kristie Garza


debra cooperDebra Cooper, Ph.D.
Year of Graduation: 2013
Advisor(s): David Weinshenker & Leonard Howell
Dissertation Title: Pharmacologic Dopamine β-Hydroxylase Inhibition: Effect On Cocaine-Induced Behavior and Neurochemistry

Current Position and Position Description:
Principal Consultant with the California State Senate Committee on Appropriations. Our office analyzes the fiscal impact of all bills that come through the CA State Senate. The basis of our analyses is “if this bill were to become a law, how much would it cost the state?” I am one of 7 consultants that produce these analyses. At the moment, I’m doing less “science policy” and more just general policy, though I intend to transition back into science policy eventually.

Why did you choose to leave academia?
I chose not to stay in academia initially because I didn’t enjoy grant writing. The less facetious answer is that I realized, through doing Brain Awareness Week and similar presentations, that I really enjoyed talking about science to non-scientists, and I wanted a career doing that. Once I made that realization, I started to look into either science communication or science policy as a career path.

What is one thing you have learned since graduation?
Networking isn’t a dirty word. People often make networking out to be this onerous task that’s a necessary evil. What I’ve learned is that successful networking is simply just building and fostering genuine relationships. The people who know you the best are the ones who are the most likely to recommend you to the next person or the next position.

What kind of skills did you learn in graduate school that were transferrable to transfer to your new job?
Most of what we do and learn in grad school can be transferred elsewhere. The most important skill in my job is communication (improved through posters presentations, talks, and papers). Other useful transferrable skills include being effective in fast paced environments (reaching deadlines), problem solving (adapting after negative/unexpected results), working well within a team (collaborations between and within labs), flexibility and adaptability (juggling experiments), being open-minded and willing to learn (every scientist naturally).

Describe something that graduate school did not prepare you for.
In graduate school, we’re expected to do a deep dive into previous research when doing literature searches. We go through as much relevant research as we can, weighing the merits, and only when we feel like we’ve done a thorough analysis do we make a conclusion. My current job works at a much faster pace and doesn’t accommodate the time for such a deep dive. I have to make judgment calls based on a much smaller set of data than my ‘scientist self’ is fully comfortable with. Being able to rapidly pull small subsets of information and form quick conclusions is definitely a skill that I’ve developed after grad school.

What is a piece of advice you would offer graduate students?
If you are even moderately interested in non-academic careers, start researching options today. Most professional society meetings have break-out sessions that highlight non-academic careers (I’m certain SfN and ASPET, the meetings I participated in the most, have them). I did the coursework for the Certificate in Translational Research while I was at Emory, which exposed me to people working in and around science at different levels. I never missed an opportunity to attend the non-academic careers symposia that GDBBS held. Attending these events alone isn’t enough though. It’s important to follow up with people that you meet at these events and really get any insight you can from them to try to figure out what career could work for you.

Any final words of wisdom?
Get involved in science policy even if that’s not something that you want to make a career out of. Legislation is always being created that affects scientists and that uses science to affect change in other ways. Who better to advocate on behalf of science than the people that do the scientific research? Getting involved can be anything from writing a letter to an elected official, going to a “Hill Day” and talking to congressional staffers, or actively pursuing a career in science policy. On top of that, not everything happens at the federal level – don’t forget state, city, and county policy. Having Atlanta as the state capitol of Georgia makes it that much easier to get involved right in your backyard.

Can students in our program contact you regarding career advice?  Yes

Preferred email?  debra.cooper@alumni.emory.edu

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Alumni Spotlight: Laura Mariani

by Kristie Garza


CS_mariani_pic

Laura Mariani, Ph.D.

Year of Graduation: 2016

Advisor: Tamara Caspary

Dissertation Title:
The Role of Arl13b and Non-Canonical Sonic Hedgehog Signaling in Joubert Syndrome

Current Position and Position Description:
Associate at Isaacson, Miller, an executive search consulting firm. When universities, non-profit organizations, and other mission-driven institutions need to find new leaders, they hire us to guide them through the complex process of identifying the challenges and opportunities that their next leader will face and bringing in experts who are up to the task. I specialize in recruiting senior administrators, deans, and department chairs in higher education, academic medicine, scientific research, and health care. I also help my firm recruit PhDs to join our team!

Did you choose to stay in academia? Why or why not?
By the end of my PhD I was pretty sure I didn’t want to do a postdoc. I loved working in research, but I wanted to move into a career where the things I was really passionate about in grad school — like serving on the Graduate Student Council and the executive board of Emory Women in Neuroscience — were viewed as valuable achievements rather than as distractions from the “most important” stuff in the lab. And, I’ll admit that money was also a factor.

What is one thing you have learned since graduation?
I recruit people in lots of different specialties, so I’m always learning! My projects have involved searches in pathology, nursing, family medicine, and lots of other fields I knew nothing about when I started this job. I’ve learned a lot about the health care industry. Also, I travel a lot, so I’ve learned some tricks for maximizing frequent flyer miles and hotel points!

What kind of skills did you learn in graduate school that were transferable to your new job?
I use my problem-solving skills all the time, it’s just a different set of problems. Instead of thinking about individual molecules, cells, or experiments, I think about large organizations made up of people with many different agendas, and how I can help them solve their problems. Being able to take in lots of information and spit out a coherent summary that highlights the key questions and prioritizes the next steps is a skill that I learned doing literature reviews, but it’s translatable to almost any career path.

Describe something that graduate school did not prepare you for.
By the end of grad school you should hopefully have learned that there’s no shame in being the person at lab meeting who goes “Uh, what? I have no idea what that means.” But as a consultant in a client meeting, you do not want to look ignorant! You’re there to sell your expertise and to portray the company you work for in a good light. Presentations and meetings feel more high-stakes in the business world. No one in grad school ever acted like I had the power to represent Emory University as a whole, but sometimes I am seen in that way as a representative of my employer.

What is a piece of advice you would offer graduate students?
Have a Plan B. Even if you want an academic career, force yourself to think about the next best alternative and make sure that you develop skills that are relevant to that alternative. Look at job postings and see what skills are actually in demand outside of academia. It’s totally possible to develop very marketable skills in the course of conducting your dissertation research: consider whether your dissertation project is relevant for clinical research or industry R&D, learn to code, learn translatable skills in statistics and data analytics, do science writing to build up a portfolio, do an internship. Life is unpredictable, and no one has ever said, “Gee, I wish I had FEWER options right now” on their graduation day.

Any final words of wisdom?
I met the most amazing people at Emory who will be my friends for life. They were there for me when stuff got real, and they made all the grad school struggles worthwhile. That said, you should also have friends who AREN’T grad students. Keep a healthy, balanced sense of perspective: failed experiments are frustrating and heartbreaking, but they aren’t the literal end of the world. Academic research is an amazing career path, but it’s not the only way to live a happy, fulfilling life. I took up running and singing in grad school because I needed to feel like I was making successful progress at SOMETHING, and the friends I made through those hobbies helped me remember that there’s more to life than mice and western blots.

Can students in our program contact you regarding career advice?
Yes! I can be reached at lmariani@gmail.com or on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lauraemariani/

 

2017 Retreat Newsletter

by Elizabeth Barfield

If you couldn’t make it to the Neuroscience Program’s annual retreat weekend this year to pick up a copy of the Central Sulcus’ printed newsletter (retreat edition), you can check out some of the articles here!

For the “Status of Statistics” article, syllabi from the courses described can be downloaded here.

 

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