Wheelhouse Leadership

Susanna Cooper, Managing Director

Before joining Wheelhouse, Ms. Cooper served as an independent consultant and as longtime advisor on pre-K-to-14 education issues for the leader of the California State Senate. In that role, she shaped and shepherded the Pro Tem’s education agenda, provided counsel on state education budget matters, and led multi-year campaigns to increase quality pre-kindergarten opportunities for low-income children, reduce the number of high school dropouts, and strengthen high school-post-secondary pathways. She is Special Advisor to the Stuart Foundation, President of the Board of Directors of the nonprofit EdSource, and brings deep experience in project management, policy advocacy, communications, government relations and philanthropy.

Michal Kurlaender, Lead Researcher, Professor

Dr. Kurlaender is Department Chair and a Chancellor’s Fellow at the UC Davis School of Education. She investigates students’ educational pathways, in particular K-12 and postsecondary alignment, and access to and success in postsecondary schooling. She has expertise in alternative pathways to college and college readiness at both community colleges and four-year colleges and universities. In addition to working with national data, Kurlaender works closely with administrative data from all three of California’s public higher education sectors systems. Kurlaender also studies the impact of racial and ethnic diversity on student outcomes. She recently served as a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation. 

Deborah Travis, Director, Wheelhouse Institutes

 Retired from her post as CEO/President of Cosumnes River College, Dr. Travis brings 30 years of postsecondary experience including senior leadership positions in California community colleges as chief academic officer, dean of instructional programs and director of economic development. Dr. Travis earned her doctorate from the UC Davis School of Education’s CANDEL program and attended the Institute for Management and Leadership in Education at Harvard University. She has designed and taught coursework in strategic planning, talent acquisition and human resource management, and organizational communication for the UC Davis and CSUS doctoral programs in educational leadership. Her long-standing research interests include adult learning theory, leadership development and community building with diverse groups.

Research Affiliates

Rachel Baker, Assistant Professor, UC Irvine School of Education

Dr. Baker is an Assistant Professor of Education Policy at the University of California, Irvine’s School of Education. She earned her PhD in Education Policy and the Economics of Education at Stanford University. She studies inequalities in access to and success in higher education using behavioral economic models of decision making and quasi-experimental and experimental methods. She works closely with the California Community Colleges. Her professional experience includes teaching elementary school in the Marshall Islands, working as a literacy specialist at a school for the Deaf, and coordinating college readiness programming at The Steppingstone Foundation in Boston.


Eric Bettinger, Associate Professor, Stanford University School of Education

Dr. Bettinger’s research interests include the economics of education; student success and completion in college; teacher characteristics and student success in college; and the effects of voucher programs on academic and non-academic outcomes. He is a research associate in the program on education at the National Bureau of Economic Research and a Co-Principal Investigator at the Lemann Center for Brazilian Education at Stanford. Eric’s research focuses on using rigorous statistical methods in identifying cause-and-effect relationships in higher education. His research on financial aid applications has influenced recent efforts by the White House to simplify financial aid processes. He holds a PhD in Economics from MIT.


Marcela Cuellar, Assistant Professor, UC Davis School of Education

Dr. Cuellar’s research focuses on Latino student access and success in higher education, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and the development of emerging HSIs. She received her doctorate in Higher Education and Organizational Change at the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies.



Elizabeth Friedmann, Research Fellow, UC Davis School of Education

Dr. Friedmann is a postdoctoral researcher at Wheelhouse. She received her PhD in Education with an emphasis in School Organization and Education Policy from UC Davis. Her research focuses on issues related to college access and success, including financial aid and transfer pathways from community colleges. At Wheelhouse, Dr. Friedmann produces independent research for publication in Wheelhouse briefs. She also provides research support for survey design and administration and organizational support for the Wheelhouse Institute on Leadership. In addition to her work at UC Davis, she lectures at CSU East Bay. 


Cassandra Hart, Associate Professor, UC Davis School of Education

Dr. Hart is an associate professor of education policy. She evaluates the effects of school, state and national education programs, policies, and practices on overall student achievement, and on the equality of student outcomes. With respect to community colleges, Dr. Hart’s work primarily focuses on evaluating student outcomes and experiences in online classes. She received her PhD from the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University in 2011.


Paco Martorell, Assistant Professor, UC Davis School of Education

Dr. Martorell has broad research interests in both higher education and K-12 policy. Current projects cover areas including developmental education in colleges, the effects of grade retention, the returns to for-profit colleges, the impacts of school facility investments, and community college tuition subsidies. He completed his PhD in economics at UC Berkeley. Prior to joining UC Davis, he was an Economist at the RAND Corporation and was a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.


Tatiana Melguizo, Associate Professor, USC Rossier School of Education

Dr. Melguizo works in the field of economics of higher education, using quantitative methods of analysis and large-scale longitudinal survey data to study the association of different factors such as student trajectories and specific institutional characteristics on the persistence and educational outcomes of minority and low-income students. She holds a PhD in Economics of Education from Stanford University and an MA in Social Policy from the London School of Economics.


Cecilia Rios-Aguilar, Associate Professor, UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies

Dr. Rios-Aguilar is Associate Dean for Equity and Inclusion, Professor of Education and Director of the Higher Education Research Institute in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA. Dr. Rios-Aguilar’s research is multidisciplinary and uses a variety of conceptual frameworks—funds of knowledge and the forms of capital—and of statistical approaches—regression analysis, multilevel models, GIS, and social network analysis—to study the educational and occupational trajectories of underrepresented minorities. Dr. Rios-Aguilar’s research interests include critical quantitative research methods, big data, social media, community colleges, and educational policies. She obtained her Ph.D. in Education Theory and Policy from the University of Rochester, her M.S. in Educational Administration from the University of Rochester, and her B.A. in Economics from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México [ITAM].

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