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Debbie Cipriani ’80 ensures safety of over-the-counter medications

As a physician, Debbie Cipriani ’80 helped nurse babies back to health and support their parents through a stressful time. Now she’s supporting health on a larger scale, working in the corporate world to ensure that medications are both effective and safe.

“This sounds so schmaltzy but it is the honest truth: I know what I do makes a difference,” says Cipriani, who has been with Johnson & Johnson’s drug safety department for about five years. “I am so proud and privileged to be able to do this work.”

Beginning a new medication can be a scary prospect, especially after listening to the fast-talking speakers on drug commercials rattle off potentially serious side effects. That’s why medical professionals like Cipirani study side effects to ensure that only the safest products remain on the market.

“We are a group of medical professionals—nurses, physicians, pharmacists—who help to assure the drugs we are using are safe,” she says. “We assess all instances when a patient or a physician contacts our company with a concern that one of our drugs has caused a side effect, and we look at all the reports on each drug in a given year and are continually re-assessing the safety profile of each drug.”

Previously, Cipriani was a physician at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children. Although the transition was difficult, she feels fortunate to have had two careers that positively impact patients’ lives.

“I love drug safety because the work allows me to stay close to the patient, as I am constantly reviewing patient stories and medical records, while allowing me to participate in something which has wide-ranging implications for patients in general,” she says. “I loved the interaction among my patients, their parents, and myself [at St. Christopher’s]. I still miss having the opportunity to directly touch and affect people’s lives. On the other hand, I feel very lucky to affect the health of the wider community.”

The biology graduate credits Lafayette with giving her the confidence to become a physician and leave her comfort zone to pursue her goals. Attending the small, liberal arts college provided the personal attention Cipriani needed to prepare for medical school.

“I am convinced that I would never have become a physician had I not gone to Lafayette,” she says. “The academic community there was so close and supportive; I could not believe how much the faculty cared and how interested they were in my success. John Caruso and Mel Lockhart were so upset when I made a mess of my mock medical school interview that they coached me until they knew I could do it successfully. It was the perfect academic environment for me. There really is something to be said for being in a small place with an excellent reputation where everyone knows you and cares.”

She still relies on her experience as an undergraduate lab instructor in the biology department when she finds herself in unfamiliar territory.

“It was the first opportunity I had to do something publicly I was certain I was not capable of,” she says. “And yet I did it, and did it well! It really helped build my confidence, and I hearken back to that time whenever I am somewhat disconcerted by having to do something new.”

That confidence has allowed her to follow her instincts when making career choices.

“I’ve never been much of a planner as far as my career goes,” she says. “I have made the decision which felt right for me at the time. When I began college, I never thought I would go to medical school. When in med school, I never planned to be a pediatrician or a neonatologist. And when I began my career as a neonatologist, I certainly never thought I would be working for a pharmaceutical company. I follow my heart and my gut, and I have always ended up in the place that is right for me. It is truly the principle which has served me well my entire life.”

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