Zara Cooper, MD, MsC, is an acute care surgeon, a trauma surgeon, a surgical intensivist, and the director of the Brigham’s Center for Surgery and Public Health (CSPH). Her career today is far different than what she imagined for herself at the start of college. As an undergraduate, Cooper studied journalism and communication at Northwestern University and envisioned writing for the New York Times editorial pages. Her career path to the world of medicine was shaped by many experiences, including an opportunity she had to shadow a neurologist while she was writing a story about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) for a philanthropic organization.
“That shadowing experience was lifechanging for me,” said Cooper. “I was struck in this profound way by his relationship to his patients. And I realized that’s what I wanted—I wanted to do something that I felt deeply passionate about where I could have an impact.”
In 2021, Cooper was appointed the inaugural Michele and Howard J. Kessler Distinguished Chair in Surgery and Public Health at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. In 2022, Cooper was promoted to full professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School (HMS). She is the first Black woman to receive this distinction, and it’s just one of many “firsts” in Cooper’s career. Cooper was also the first black woman to be a surgical resident at the Brigham. She says that what drew her to HMS and the Brigham two decades ago still holds true today.
“The core of who we are and what drives our research is a commitment to making life better for patients,” said Cooper.
The Intersection of Surgery and Palliative Care
Cooper completed her surgical training at the Brigham and a fellowship at Harborview Medical Center. Among her mentors during her training were Selwyn Rogers, MD, who was the chief of the Division of Trauma at the time, and Michael Zinner, MD, who was the chair of Surgery.
“I was so fortunate to have people who were supportive of me and my interests,” said Cooper.
During her training, Cooper became especially interested in the intersection of surgery and palliative care, which her mentors encouraged her to pursue. Cooper notes that palliative care does have a surgical tradition, but the fields have diverged and most practitioners of medicine see little overlap. But Cooper has seen just the opposite as she treats patients.
“I see a lot of patients and families who are suffering with chronic illness and then have an acute surgical event that needs to be managed concurrently,” she said. “Patients are not necessarily near the end of life but they’re thinking about it. And that’s something we need to address to improve the patient and family illness experience.”
A Center on a Mission
The CSPH was formed in 2005 and Zinner served as its first director. Cooper has been a faculty member since 2009 and she says being a part of the center has enriched her academic career in many ways.
“CSPH’s faculty have many research interests but we share a common goal: to improve surgical care everywhere,” she said.
The center positions access to timely, high-quality surgical care as a key public health issue. Its faculty and trainees explore different aspects of surgery through research projects spanning many disciplines and topics, including firearm injury, access to specific kinds of surgical procedures such as Cesarean sections, disparities in outcomes for cardiovascular procedures by race and gender and more.
“We’re big thinkers and we want to solve big problems,” said Cooper, who became director of the CSPH in 2019. “We believe that, together, our efforts can make surgery safer, more patient-centered and more accessible in the U.S. and around the world.”
Surgery and Research
Cooper is comfortable having a foot in the world of surgery and the other in the world of research. And she encourages colleagues to look for ways to bridge these worlds.
“Surgeons can be researchers too,” she said. “We shouldn’t underestimate the value that surgical collaborators can bring to scientific endeavors and that researchers can bring to improving care.”
At one time, Cooper considered becoming a community physician. She had a longstanding interest in public health and a master’s degree in community health, so many of her peers were surprised when she chose surgery as her specialty.
“Surgery is the common pathway for disease treatment,” she explained. “From cardiovascular care to cancer, patients need surgery. And they need access to safe and high-quality surgery, which makes this a public health issue.”
Cooper recently received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the role of palliative care in surgery and its associations with downstream health care utilization. She looks forward to working collaboratively with a medical sociologist and ethnographer to better understand opportunities for palliative care in the context of surgical care.
A Special Milestone
Cooper says she is humbled and honored by her promotion to full professor and touched by the outpouring of support and warm wishes from her colleagues. But there is one person she wishes she could share the moment with.
“I wish my father were here to see this,” she said.
Cooper’s parents were immigrants to the U.S. and she describes her father as a “larger than life” character. He died five years ago.
“He was traditional and he would say, ‘Girls can’t do math and science’—but he was eventually won over as he saw my career unfold,” said Cooper. “He knew about the commitment, the hard work, the sacrifices and the passion I have for surgery and medicine. I think he would have been gratified to see me reach this point.”
One of Cooper’s goals is to help others to pursue their passions too.
“When I think about my role as director of the CSPH, I see it as my job to help people do their best work—not to direct them, but to let them get creative and pursue what they care about. It’s been amazing to see people at various stages in their careers make a difference in a space that is important to them.”