Julianne McCall, Ph.D. is a consultant in public health policy with an interest in the interaction between science and policymaking at the California Senate Office of Research and a 2017 policy fellow for the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST).
In this installment of Beyond the Lab, Julianne discusses what made her shift from the field of medicine to one of public policy, and why she thinks it is vital for policymakers to employ a scientific approach in their work.
What made you want to become a scientist/researcher?
Studying science has humbled and inspired me, as the community repeatedly reveals how the wonder of life rests upon the fragile and canny mechanisms of our biology. I initially considered pursuing medicine to counteract the debilitating effects of neurological diseases, like the one that shapes my little sister’s life – she has had several stroke-like episodes and underwent numerous surgeries at a very young age.
Through several internships and research fellowships at the Cleveland Clinic, Stanford, Lund University and others, I was made aware of how limited current neurological and neurosurgical practices were. Unless a stroke patient is treated within hours of the event, for example, the vast field of medicine has extremely little to offer. I began to see neuroscience and biomedical research as the primary vessel of hope for people like my sister and therefore pursued a career as a scientist to contribute to the development of new therapies, first at the University of California, San Diego and then at Heidelberg University.
What gets you going every day (besides coffee) and how do you stay motivated?
While I was working in the lab, I would relish the brewing mystery of what my data would show following months of neurosurgeries, gene therapy design, virus development and cell culture. Experiments often culminated in one long night of statistical analysis, and I knew how fortunate I was to be in a position of uncovering a result, a fresh hope for addressing disease. Now, as a public health policy consultant at the California Senate Office of Research, that feeling arises even more frequently. The excitement of discovery has transitioned from brain slices under a microscope to reports and briefings that identify an issue alongside potential solutions for policymakers to consider during the legislative process.
What limitations or challenges do you face as a scientist?
I have worked in twelve neuroscience research labs over sixteen years and can point to a moment in 2007, my first year as a graduate student, when I became fully aware of the implications of the U.S. federal government’s restrictions on stem cell research. I found it surprising that my lab’s progress in spinal cord injury research could be hindered based on differing political beliefs. From that point forward, I felt exposed to the power of science policy and kept the idea lodged in the back of my mind that I would find a way to contribute to that arena.
What do you think the public should understand about science and scientific research?
A great many things. I love that science continues to stretch my own understanding of the world, and I dedicate much of my time to developing opportunities to share that excitement with others. I’m inspired by science curricula that demonstrate the value of critical thinking and applying the scientific method over memorization of a set of facts. That skillset served me well when I entered the world of public policy. The ability to identify evidence and gauge the relative weight of information is one tool among many from a scientific background that I consistently appreciate, as anecdotes are customarily presented alongside data of variable quality. I also think it’s important for students to learn about more “non-traditional” science such as neuroscience. Today, high school students can tell you the trajectory of a ball flying through the air, but there is untapped opportunity for them to learn about how our own brains work.
Additionally, as co-founder of TEDxFulbright, a TED program for the global Fulbright community, I treasure the power of stories to draw attention to worthwhile issues. When it comes to public policy, too, understanding a situation benefits from personal experiences that paint a relatable picture. In parallel, datasets are also helpful to reflect the full view of how a population may be impacted. The scientific method provides exactly that sort of impartial process to approach challenging topics of all kinds, and I think that’s important for people to remember.
Is there someone you look up to, consider a mentor or who inspires you? Why?
Dr. Charles Cochrane is one of many mentors that has shaped my idea of a noble career. He founded The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla in 1961 with a small team of medical scientists and has been internationally celebrated for his invention of a medication that facilitates breathing in pre-term infants. As significantly as he has expanded the boundaries of medicine as a scientist, he has also done as much as a humanitarian. Dr. Cochrane dedicated a major portion of his share of the medication’s revenue to ensuring that it was affordable and accessible across the globe. At a time in our nation when my optimism is challenged hourly, scientists like Dr. Cochrane demonstrate how an honorable and deeply thoughtful career can truly change the world.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I plan to run with this new-found career in public policy, which I’ve begun at the Senate Office of Research, whose role it is to provide research assistance to state senators. A recent report, “Optimizing public benefits of state-funded research,” that I co-authored with my colleagues Paul Jacobs and Dr. Teresa Feo, focuses on the field of research administration policy and has been used repeatedly in Senate hearings and by statewide scientific coordination groups. As the discussion about state-funded public research evolves, I hope to continue to build on my expertise in the field.
What more do you want people to know about you, your team or your work?
I would like to shout from the rooftops how critically we need more scientists working in and engaging with the policymaking process. As our society increasingly relies on technology, it is important that public policies are informed by science and an evidence base of research. Proactive programs that recruit and train scientists to work in policy, like the California Council on Science and Technology Policy Fellowship (made possible by the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation!), are the necessary stepping stones for scientists like myself who lacked the imagination (or confidence) to translate the skillset of a research scientist to public policy without thoughtful and prudent guidance. I have been speaking to hundreds of postdocs and graduate students about such opportunities to experiment with a career in policy and plan to publish a freely available guidebook to assist the process.