Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Influencing Change through Science Policy Fellowships

Science Policy Fellows share their experiences and their reasons for applying 

It wasn’t the most auspicious start.

In August 2013, Sam Bockenhauer received his doctorate in chemistry from Stanford University. He applied for an American Chemical Society congressional fellowship and got it—starting his tenure one month after graduation.

Bockenhauer’s experience has been good. He’s a science policy fellow, a participant in a program that places chemists and other scientists in roles within the federal government. He works in the office of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), and conducts meetings with interest groups and constituents, writes memos on policy topics, and drafts letters on behalf of Sen. Franken.

Tackling Big Problems with Broad Impact
“My chief reason for applying for the fellowship was that I wanted to work on complex problems,” Sam explains.

Tasks can be as straightforward as working on a brief about nuclear energy, or as unexpected as exploring forensic science. The rules—both rigid and amorphous—set the boundaries for existence in our culture.

Attracting Scientists from All Career Stages
Fellowships in this area abound, with the lion’s share specifically connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The AAAS works with more than 30 scientific and engineering professional organizations—including the American Chemical Society— to administer a large number of science policy fellowships. 

Laura Pence belongs in the middle group. Pence, a faculty member, decided to do a congressional fellowship mid-career. In 2012–2013, she worked in the office of Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Col.). After a few months of cutting her teeth on the job, she narrowed her focus and became responsible for any issues pertaining to water.

“I had no documentable expertise in it, but some of the things that a chemist brings to Congress is knowing how to research something,”

Perspective Change
 “Most fellows are going from grad school, where you get very little respect, and then you do a fellowship where you are respected for your knowledge,” Brittany Westlake explains.

“I did a fellowship straight out of grad school, and at first, it was definitely a big cultural jump from a lab in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to a professional office in Washington, D.C.,” Westlake says.

Advice for New Candidates
There are a few more things would-be fellows can do to prepare themselves—and make themselves good candidates.

“Think about what you want to do with your Ph.D., and think about where it’s going to take you,” offers Kate Stoll, a 2013–2014 ACS Congressional Fellow. “If you decide that you don’t want to stay in academia and follow the tenure track, then you might want to consider getting some of these transferable skills early in your career.”

Bockenhauer adds, “I’d recommend looking for opportunities to broaden your experience outside of science. I participated in conferences, graduate student organizations, and took courses in areas ranging from patent law to biosecurity.”

[Author Bio] Wendy Hankle is a writer living in Ithaca, New York.