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For Catalyst Fellow Sabrina Ruchelli L’19, ‘policy doesn’t exist in a vacuum’

July 22, 2020

As a Catalyst Fellow, Sabrina Ruchelli L’19 is working as a Law and Policy Analyst with the Policy Surveillance Program at Center for Public Health Law Research, which is based at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law. The University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s Office of Communications spoke with Ruchelli about her work and her approach to public policy.

Office of Communications: What is the Center for Public Health Law Research and why, in your opinion, is its work important?

Sabrina Ruchelli: The Policy Surveillance Program works to improve health outcomes nationwide by conducting policy surveillance, which is the systematic, scientific collection and analysis of laws of public health significance. Policy surveillance addresses the chronic lack of readily accessible, nonpartisan information about status and trends in health legislation and policy. It provides the opportunity to build policy capacity in the public health workforce, and it can speed the diffusion of innovation.

Put another way, laws have as big an impact on public health outcomes as more tangible factors, such as air quality. However, they have not historically been studied in this way, which means that for a long time, policymakers have passed measures with little to no real understanding as to what the practical effects might be and with little rigorous study done into efficacy after the fact.

For someone looking to do such a study, say, someone wanting to look into the impacts of tobacco taxes on public health outcomes, the first step would be to get a clear picture of what laws related to tobacco taxes actually look like. That input data could then be compared against the relevant health outcome data, and with a big enough sampling of laws you could see what works and what doesn’t. The Policy Surveillance Program comes in at that first step. We work to collect laws on a specific topic across a wide variety of regions, break them down into their key elements, map that data out, and then upload that data to our website, where we make it freely available.

Office of Communications: Tell us about your work as a Fellow.

Ruchelli: In my capacity as a Fellow, I am primarily a legal researcher. On any given subject – I’ve worked on datasets on tobacco taxation, Ban the Box policies, and insurance coverage of medication for Opioid Use Disorder, among others – I look at what laws and policies exist nationwide and track major variations in the law across different states. In some datasets, I also look at change over time. I also help with the dissemination of research results, such as speaking with interested policymakers or preparing presentations for events such as webinars or conferences.

Office of Communications: Do you have a favorite moment from your time as a Fellow?

Ruchelli: In my first few months of working at the Center, I came in on a dataset looking at Tobacco Taxation across all 50 states and the District of Columbia, which included mapping out taxes on electronic cigarettes and other vapor-based devices. A former state senator from Tennessee, which does not presently have an e-cigarette tax, reached out asking if we would speak with her about the results of our dataset, to give her an idea about what the key elements of such a tax that she should be looking out for when attempting to advocate for the passage of such a tax in Tennessee. I led a phone call with her to go through our data, and it was a very rewarding experience to actually be able to get the sense that the work I had done was having a tangible policy impact.

Office of Communications: How has the COVID-19 crisis impacted your work?

Ruchelli: COVID-19 has impacted my work in a big way. Using the same tools and methods that we use to capture policies in other areas, a large portion of my office has shifted gears to track the emergency measures that states have passed across the country attempting to deal with this crisis.

Office of Communications: Did you have any experiences at the Law School that inspired you to pursue the work you’re doing today?

Ruchelli: At a very basic level, the research and communication skills that I acquired in all of my classes, but particularly in first year legal practice skills and advanced legal research, are ones that I use on pretty much a daily basis. Beyond that, I owe a lot of where I am today to Director of Social Justice Programs Emily Sutcliffe and the rest of the folks at the Toll Public Interest Center, who always supported me and my interests in public interest work.

They, along with professors such as Professor of Law Jean Galbraith and Professor of Law and History Sophia Lee, were huge influences in my current approach to the law, which is to always keep in mind that policy doesn’t exist in a vacuum and that its human impacts—particularly with regards to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color—should always be considered first and foremost.

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Penn Law offers several postgraduate fellowships, which aid graduates in the pursuit of careers as social justice advocates.