September 28, 2012
Researcher Spotlight: Monica Schoch-Spana
BY SARAH MAY
September’s Researcher Spotlight features Monica Schoch-Spana, Senior Associate with the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) and an Assistant Professor in the School of Medicine’s Division of Infectious Diseases.
She is a member of START’s Executive Committee and has worked with START since its inception focusing primarily on resilience research. Schoch-Spana graduated from Bryn Mawr College with an anthropology major, and she earned her doctorate in cultural anthropology from John Hopkins University.
How did you get involved with START?
I was lucky to be part of the team that responded to DHS’s original call to establish a center like START. Kathleen Tierney, a leading disaster sociologist, brought a group of us together who were knowledgeable about how communities respond to and recover from extreme events of all kinds— disasters, epidemics and terrorist attacks. A cultural anthropologist, I was also able to bring the perspective of someone who had worked on public health emergency preparedness issues since 1998. Under Kathleen’s leadership, our group then married up with the team led by Gary LaFree who focused more on the “front end” of the problem—terrorist motivation and organization.
How do you think START has evolved since its inception? Has it grown into what you and the founding members had hoped?
On the “impacts” side of the research agenda, we have shifted our focus from understanding how communities react to disasters and health emergencies to investigating how communities can rebound from major tragedy as well as work proactively to transform their social and physical environments to mitigate the negative consequences of future incidents. On the “terrorist” side of the research agenda, I think there has been a helpful shift in the research focus, from say, understanding people and groups who use terrorist tactics to shedding more light on government approaches to counterterrorism, and of course, the dynamics between these forces.
A very positive development at START has been exponential growth in its ability to engage students at all training levels in the research enterprise. Another great development has been a strong administrative mechanism to streamline grant management (permitting researchers to focus on investigations, not paperwork), and to generate plans and momentum to diversify START’s funding stream. I am sad, however, over the loss of core funding for resilience research—particularly in light of the fact that leading policymakers and practitioners recognize the importance of strengthening the country’s ability to withstand extreme events. The nation is increasingly vulnerable to natural disasters, and there will always be some residual risk of a terrorist attack or technological accident (despite all important efforts at prevention).
What’s a typical day like for you?
I am a faculty member at the Center for Biosecurity which works at the intersection of public health and national security to affect policy and practice in ways that improve U.S. resilience to biological and nuclear dangers. We operate like a university-based “think tank,” and rather than being geared to students or other researchers, we are primarily interested in engaging with decision makers who have an impact on the state of U.S. homeland security and public health emergency preparedness.
We conduct academically rigorous investigations, and we are always thinking ahead to the potential implications our findings have for policymakers and for practitioners, such as emergency managers and health officials, as well as more grassroots community-based leaders. Drawing upon our analyses, we have offered advice to agencies such as CDC, FEMA, HHS, DHS, and DOD, to mayors and governors, and to people charged with public health and safety at the state and local level. We explore any gaps that might exist between what communities and the nation need to be resilient to public health emergencies, and what current governmental programs are providing or supporting.
Today, for example, I’m working with my project manager to monitor a survey that we have in the field right now. We are conducting a national survey of local health departments to document how and with what organizational resources they are engaging community partners in the larger emergency preparedness enterprise. Among the hypotheses being tested is that local health departments who practice more “intense” community engagement for preparedness are those who have greater leadership buy-in, staffing and programmatic funding for this work, and those who have experienced an actual disaster and learned the concrete benefits of community partnerships.
What other research topics have you explored or are planning to explore?
I am very interested in the challenges posed for short- and long-term recovery by a nuclear terrorist attack on a major U.S. city. Government conversations about recovery in this context have typically focused on more technical issues such as decontamination standards and technologies, and how best to communicate residual radiological risk to residents. But, what if that conversation was broadened to address recovery more holistically and from the perspective of the survivors?
One complication of recovery post-nuclear detonation, for instance, that I am interested in investigating is mass population displacement due to the need to reduce people’s exposure to radioactive fallout. Current research on displaced persons demonstrates that they are at high risk of becoming impoverished on many levels – socially, psychologically, and economically. So, I am preparing to launch a project to that explores past and present radiological emergencies as well as incidents of mass displacement for lessons in how best to help reconstitute community life following a catastrophe—both for uprooted residents who eventually return home and for those who settle elsewhere permanently.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
With a job like this which is colored by a fair amount of dark and difficult topics, it has been important for me to separate my personal life from the job. I do a lot of gardening and reading. Just this past weekend, I had three catalogues open trying to decide which tulip bulbs to plant in my garden. Also, my job requires a lot of reading of government reports, academic articles and pieces of legislation. So, my personal reading tends to be a lot of fiction – mostly escapist: murder mysteries, science fiction, and fantasy novels. Right now, I’m actually reading the “Game of Thrones” series, and am in the middle of the third book. I will be taking a break soon from the series, though – too many of my favorite characters are being maimed physically and mentally, or in some cases, being killed off.
Who is your favorite character in “Game of Thrones”?
With the Games of Thrones, I try not to get too attached to any one character; after a certain special character didn’t make it after the first book, I became more cautious. I do, however, like Tyrion Lannister who has used his wit to compensate for his short stature as a dwarf. As a confidant of Tyrion has said and with whom I agree, Tyrion towers over other men. He maintains an incredible level of dignity, despite being dismissed as “The Imp” by others, including most of his family. And though he has been despised by many, he has not turned cruel and cutthroat and still has a wealth of love and compassion to share with others.
What is the most satisfying moment in a research project?
Every step along the way does produce its own kind of “high”: Scanning the policy environment and seeing where some smart research could really advance things. Pitching the idea to colleagues and outside funders, and getting the feedback, that yes, pursuing my line of investigation would be valuable. Because writing things up can be very challenging, finishing always feels fabulous. And yes, getting the findings into the hands of decision makers and seeing their own thinking and actions evolve as a result is very satisfying.
What advice do you have for future researchers?
Work with practitioners and policy makers. It’s important that research be used to help inform their decisions and actions. They do not have the time to commit to thoughtful, deep analysis on critical public topics, though they would want to. I would advise those already working in the field of terrorism and cataclysmic events to work with an eye toward how their research can be translated in ways to help enhance public safety and security.
The Researcher Spotlight is a monthly Q&A series designed to profile START researchers and staff for their accomplishments and personal journey to the field of terrorism studies. To nominate consortium researchers or staff members for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org with Researcher Spotlight Suggestion in the subject line.