Member Spotlight: Katelyn Cooper

Katelyn Cooper

Arizona State University

How long have you worked in the cell biology field?
10 years

What is your field of research?
Undergraduate and graduate biology education.

What initially got you interested in becoming a scientist and then later specifically your field of research?
I am a discipline-based education researcher in biology who studies how to make academic biology more inclusive. This means that I hold a typical tenure-track position in a biology department, I teach biology courses, but my research focuses exclusively on undergraduate and graduate biology education. One of my first jobs out of college was serving as an academic advisor in a department of biology. In this job I watched how a small number of people in power made decisions that affected thousands of undergraduates. I also came to realize how many systemic barriers were in place that made it particularly difficult for students from underrepresented and underserved backgrounds to succeed. At the time, I thought I wanted to teach college biology and was considering basic science PhD programs. However, when I learned about the field of biology education research, where I could explore questions related to equity and access, while retaining my identity as a biologist and continuing to teach biology, I knew I had found my field.

What is going on in your research now that you are particularly excited about?
My lab studies the relationship between undergraduate/graduate mental health and cognitive and affective learning. Researchers have declared both a graduate and undergraduate mental health crisis in the sciences. However, little is known about how science learning environments affect mental health and how students’ anxiety and depression impact their experiences in higher education. My lab has spent the past five years describing this relationship and we are now building on this work to develop single-session interventions to help undergraduates and graduate students cope with some of the most challenging aspects of science degrees.

What is a challenge in your career and how did you overcome it?
I went to med school right out of undergrad and realized quickly that I hated being in the hospital, but I loved understanding and applying physiology. I really struggled with whether to just “stick it out” or to pursue something I was more passionate about. In the end, I decided to leave medical school after my first year. It was an incredibly tough decision, but in retrospect it was the right one. It was a good lesson in not caring what others think and doing what is right for you personally. I was a bit older when I started my PhD and kept my job as an academic advisor for the first two years of my program. While these felt like consequences of switching careers, I now realize I became a more efficient and thoughtful researcher because of my journey.

What is some advice that you could give to an early career scientist?
Find a good mentor and maximize your time with them. I owe so much to women mentors who invested in me early on. There is so much that you encounter as a scientist that is unknown to you and that you were never trained for. So, having people help you navigate decisions, especially ones early on in your career, can be critical to ensuring your success later on.

Why did you decide to become a member of ASCB and how has it helped your career?
ASCB houses the premiere biology education research journal, CBELife Sciences Education. So, my graduate advisor introduced me to ASCB right away. Importantly, when I was a graduate student, I received an LGBTQ+ travel award to attend the ASCB annual meeting. During that meeting, I had the opportunity to present my research and build my network; I’ve been a member ever since. 

Do you volunteer with ASCB and if so what is your role and why do you think it’s important to volunteer with the association?
After receiving the LGBTQ+ travel award, I was asked to be on the ASCB LGBTQ+ committee and I enthusiastically agreed. I had never been in a space with so many out and proud LGBTQ+ scientists and, as a grad student, that was really remarkable for me. I wanted to help other people have that experience. I’ve served on the committee for 5 years now and we just wrapped up the largest national study of LGBTQ+ biologists. So, needless to say volunteering for ASCB allows you to give back in ways that matter to you personally, to make differences in the lives of others, and in the biology community broadly. 

Who is your scientific hero and how have they inspired your career?
My field (undergraduate/graduate biology education) is really young. It exists because of a really thoughtful and tenacious group of people, primarily women, recognized the importance of using data to inform how we teach undergraduate and graduate biology. Mary Pat Wenderoth is one of those women; she’s now a Teaching Professor Emerita at the University of Washington. Mary Pat started the Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research (SABER). She had a vision for what the community could become, and she made it happen. At every step of the way, there were challenges that she overcame so that the next generations of biology education researchers, which includes my generation, could have access to a really thoughtful, critical, and rigorous community. We owe a lot to that group of women who started and fought for our field, and I’m very grateful to them. Especially, Mary Pat.

What are some of the challenges you see in the future for your field of research or the scientific community as a whole? and What are you most optimistic about when it comes to the future of science?
I’ll answer these together, because I think they’re related. I think the biggest challenge we are facing is the lack of diversity in science. And that extends to an array of different identities. Diverse teams do better science. However, I will say that I’m optimistic that the community is paying more attention to issues of equity and access. We certainly have a long way to go, but I think we are headed in the right direction.

Any interesting hobbies or pastimes you enjoy that you would like to share?
My favorite thing to do is hike. This year I hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim, which was a once in a lifetime opportunity!

About the Author:

This post was collaboratively written by several ASCB staff members.