“I definitely did not expect to finish my degree in public health and then find myself in the middle of a public health pandemic. It was a challenge to balance living and working through something that I’d only learned about.”
When Rebecca Cooper (’11) started her job at the National Academy for State Health Policy (NASHP) in Washington, DC in the fall of 2019, she didn’t realize how quickly her work on the Population and Public Health team would become so public-facing. Her largest project was working to improve routine vaccination among pregnant people and children in six states. And now, of course, rhetoric about vaccination has become quite prescient.
Since the onset of COVID, “Everyone’s worlds had turned upside down. Needs became essential to the pandemic and preventative care took a backseat,” Rebecca says. “I’d been working with state officials on routine immunization rates for HPV, TDAP, and flu vaccines, but then it shifted to COVID vaccinations and vaccine plans. The overarching goal of improving public health and working with medicaid officials has stayed the same, but the immediate needs shifted to COVID response… It’s incredible how quickly my work on immunization policy had become relevant.”
NASHP is a nonpartisan forum of policymakers and state officials across the country working to implement innovative solutions to health policy challenges. Much of Rebecca’s work is tied to collaboration with public health officials and Medicaid directors. And of course, the past two years have been very difficult and tiring for all workers in public health. “Living through a public health pandemic personally and also trying to help policy response from a professional perspective has been difficult.”
But Rebecca has continued to learn and grow. Personally, she is most interested in the intersection of public health modernization and how public health can work alongside the healthcare system. “It’s often really separate,” she says. “The pandemic has highlighted the cracks in these systems and how they often don’t work together. Everyone can be healthier when all the systems work together, so it is especially important from an equity perspective to focus on historically marginalized communities, and those which tend to be underfunded. This work and impact at the local level is really meaningful for me.”
Her dream role would be to lead a state Medicaid or Public Health program. “Right now my focus is on uninsured and underinsured people on public insurance programs. That tends to overlap with historically marginalized communities and my interest in giving back to communities.”
She can trace her interest in science to Heschel chemistry classes with Isaac Secemski and biology classes with Ruth Kentor Himelstein, which in turn informed her undergrad global health studies at Washington University, and a MPH in Health Policy and Management from George Washington University. She also participated in Avodah, a Jewish social justice service corp, after she graduated from Heschel. “Avodah was really transformative, and a lot of it is because of the foundation I had from Heschel—both in terms of thinking critically and also thinking about life from a Jewish perspective and what kind of person I want to be.” She also has a close-knit group of friends from Heschel that she speaks to on a regular basis, and who have been key to helping one another throughout the pandemic. “They’re part of what influences my day to day life. We talk on the phone usually weekly, if not daily, and keep each other apprised of our life decisions, both big and small. I am grateful to have had such supportive and close friends in my life for over a decade.”