Committed to earning the public’s trust

By Anne Riker Garlington

Sometimes hearing a story about injustice can change the direction of a career. That is exactly what happened to Carolyne St. Louis, J.D., M.H.A., deputy ethics counselor and director of ethics at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, or NIEHS, and a 2002 University of Florida alumna.

Dr. Carolyne St. Louis
Dr. Carolyne St. Louis

While working on her concurrent law and master’s in health administration degrees from the University of Florida Levin College of Law and College of Public Health and Health Professions, St. Louis learned about a South Carolina law that allowed for mandatory drug testing of women in labor that had affected women of color disproportionately. The women were going into the hospital to deliver their babies and if found to have drugs in their system after giving birth, were handcuffed and put in jail.

“The people who wrote the laws had good intentions for public health, but it was supposed to identify those individuals who needed help with parenting and or perhaps rehab, but instead exposed significant medical bias,” St. Louis said.

Since that time, St. Louis has been dedicated to making a difference for the public by using her legal and health administration expertise to serve the greater good. As she said, “Basically, I became a policy wonk.”

While serving as a presidential management fellow at the U.S. Department of Labor, St. Louis helped promulgate several regulations in support of workers in vulnerable situations. She is proud of the Popcorn Workers Lung Disease Prevention Act that was put into place to protect workers from breathing in harmful spores and provide protective gear as well as clean air space in which to work.

St. Louis talks about her experiences in civil service and shares her thoughts for someone interested in going into her field.

Question: What is your role as a deputy ethics counselor with the NIEHS?

Answer: Currently, I am shoring up the ethics and compliance function for NIEHS, such as hiring new staff, developing processes and procedures, and ensuring that staff conflicts of interest (perceived or actual) are addressed. I’m also advising NIEHS on international and domestic memorandums of understanding, training staff on government ethics matters, and lastly, assessing NIEHS related to ethics, risks and compliance.

The mission of the National Institutes of Health, of which the NIEHS is one of 27 institutes, is to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability. It is the largest provider of grants for research in the country and awards the most amount of money to institutions of higher education. That’s a lot of money leaving one source and we’ve got to make sure that there are no issues with those with decision-making authority.

From January through May, the Ethics Office is tasked with reviewing financial disclosures of civil servants to determine that there are no conflicts for the public interest. Or, in determining there are conflicts, determine which remedies work for the public good. We do not live in a perfect world; my job is to untie knots.

“We do not live in a perfect world; my job is to untie knots.”

Carolyne St. Louis

Q: What is the best lesson you learned while at UF?

A: Find your cheerleaders (people who believe and encourage you). Thereafter, return the favor … feed your relationships. I would not have had the courage to not practice law in a traditional way if not for those around me who knew I would be much happier shaping health policy. They helped me to see what that future would look like. That said, I don’t think any of us had government ethics in our bingo card.

Q: What advice would you give others who might go into your field?

A: I have been fortunate to have mentors who provided necessary advice regarding when a “job” was well done, and I could be better suited elsewhere. In addition, I cannot emphasis more the value of establishing a “buddy” when entering a new work environment. This buddy will often be the individual(s) who will help you navigate uncharted waters until you can figure out the lay of the land for yourself. 

For many years, ethics and compliance was seen as a box-ticking exercise. Fast forward to today, however, and that has changed. Working in ethics and compliance can provide an intellectually stimulating, financially rewarding and exciting career at the intersection of industry, law and policy. It’s no longer about box-ticking. Instead, ethics and compliance professionals are often at the center of the organizational decision-making process. My top advice for someone seeking to work in ethics and compliance:

St. Louis in front of Big Ben, London.
St. Louis in front of Big Ben, London.
  • Get the right qualifications. This will include certifications beyond your advanced degree(s), e.g., CCEP, IACCP, CHCP, ACAMS, CGSS.
  • Pursue training and development. Take advantage of internships, fellowships or developmental assignments at every stage. 
  • Cultivate a network. These individuals will be your biggest supporters and provide coaching and mentoring.
  • Be strategic and step outside the box. I have found that a successful ethics and compliance professional is one who has a breadth of experience and knowledge from other areas. I encourage my staff to serve on committees that have nothing to do with ethics or compliance. This will eventually lead to a comprehensive knowledge of your industry. That is invaluable.

We are hiring at NIEHS. I’m always looking for those individuals who are imminently curious. I always ask, ‘Are you a curious person?’ Because it takes somebody who’s going to want to turn the page, even though it says “the end” on the previous page.

Q: What does public service mean to you? 

A: Public service is a public trust. This requires that I place my loyalty to the constitution and laws ahead of any private gain for myself or a few. As an officer of the federal government, I have been entrusted with authority to act on the people’s behalf. I hold this “authority” in trust to be used only for the benefit of the public good. 

Q: What do you spend most of your free time doing? 

A: I love to travel. My goal is to visit every continent before I retire. So far, I have visited five out of the seven and Australia is next on my list.

Q: What would people be surprised to learn about you? 

A: I am a huge fan of all things science fiction and fantasy, and love Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. It doesn’t take long after meeting me before I work in a sci-fi joke or reference.