Robert Cooper

Robert Cooper

Robert Cooper (ΦΒΚ, Williams College) is a scientist who believes in the importance of public conversations about science. He volunteers at science outreach events and was a lead organizer for the March for Science in San Diego, California. After studying physics in college and graduating from Princeton University with a PhD in molecular biology, he is now completing a postdoc at UC San Diego.

How do you think the March for Science impacted the public’s perception of science?

What I hope is that the March For Science helped show science as more human by getting so many scientists and general enthusiasts together. A lot of people see science as this mysterious, elitist, semi-magical thing that only happens in far-away, walled-off ivory towers and moated, hollow volcano lairs. We need to show that science is done by real humans, from all colors and backgrounds, and whoever you are, science includes people like you.  

You’ve studied many branches of science—physics, molecular biology, and bioengineering—but are also interested in science, tech, and environmental policy. Why is the connection between science and policy so integral to society?

Public policy is one of the main forces that shape the world. That’s why it’s clearly important that policy be based on the best available evidence and information, so it can do the most good and the least bad.  Scientists should care about policy because people generally go into science wanting to make the world better, and policy is one critical bridge between science and the world.  Personally, I’m also interested in policy for the same reason I’m interested in science - I just want to know how the world works, and policy is just as technical and challenging and interesting as anything else.  

Why do you think a well-rounded education in the arts and sciences is important today?

A quest to understand ourselves and the universe has run throughout all human history, and learning as much as you can makes you a part of that common human quest. Plus it’s fun! That makes strong STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math] education valuable in and of itself, but of course it’s also what empowers people to solve problems and make the world better. Humanities are an important part of that because they explore things about ourselves and society that science hasn’t reached. They also activate the creative part of the brain, which is an unsung, but critical part of science. You can’t do a new experiment or invent something unique without imagining it first. In turn, creativity works best when you have as broad a base of knowledge as possible to work with and make new connections from.  

What was the best advice you were ever given and who gave it to you?  

An advisor once told me to always aim to ask a question at research talks. I don’t always actually ask something, but I think keeping an eye out for potential questions - gaps in the logic or assumptions you don’t understand or implications that haven’t been explored - helps you understand things better. Of course there aren’t many research talks outside of universities, but I think the advice is still good whenever anyone tells you something new. Does it all make sense? Is there anything else you need to know to fully understand it? Does it suggest some new thing you could use in your own life or work?

What advice do you have for others?  

Deep down, at some level, everybody’s making it up as they go along. Of course there’s almost always someone who knows more about some particular thing, but nobody really knows what they’re doing in life, so don’t worry too much if you don’t either. People are different, so whatever advice anyone has that worked for them may not work for you. Listen to advice, but remember in the end you’ll have to find your own way.

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