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Bridging The Lab And The Legislature

ACS fellowship opportunities in Washington, D.C., immerse chemists in public policy process

by Rachel Petkewich
March 27, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 13

Credit: Photo by Rachel Petkewich
Credit: Photo by Rachel Petkewich

David Bernstein ran the radio station at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. But the undergraduate chemistry major spent more time interacting with the school's student government than spinning records. That was fine with the self-proclaimed National Public Radio junkie who is now using his scientific training as a fellow for the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP). He works with ranking member Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Credit: Photo by Rachel Petkewich
Credit: Photo by Rachel Petkewich
Credit: Photo by Rachel Petkewich
Credit: Photo by Rachel Petkewich

Scientists have expertise and perspective that is increasingly sought by policymakers for decisions on such issues as public health, drug development, homeland security, and the environment. The American Chemical Society sponsors two kinds of fellowships annually that provide chemical scientists with the opportunity to participate. This year, two congressional fellows are working on Capitol Hill, and one science policy fellow is working in the ACS Office of Legislative & Government Affairs, also in Washington, D.C. Midcareer fellows have used the fellowship opportunity as a sabbatical learning experience. This year's three are starting careers in science-related policy.

Bernstein debated whether to pursue an academic or industrial career when he began Ph.D. work in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Halfway through, on the school's biennial career day, he met John Mimikakis, who also got his Ph.D. in biochemistry from Wisconsin and had been an ACS Congressional Fellow (1997-98). Bernstein tested the policy track while still in graduate school. He volunteered Monday mornings answering phones at Sen. Herb Kohl's (D) office in Madison. But his interest truly was piqued as he learned about the bills worked on by Kohl's Capitol Hill staffers. Bernstein finished his doctoral degree in 2004 and applied for the congressional fellowship.

Bernstein describes his current responsibilities to the HELP committee as including collecting information on "avian flu, bioterrorism, stem cells, and all things NIH," such as meeting with Massachusetts constituents and companies to discuss concerns that relate to disease research funding through the National Institutes of Health.

Bernstein also gets briefed on these issues by agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Asking questions and making suggestions to Senate staff on the basis of that kind of information has "some influence on the legislation that goes through, and that's exciting because it actually affects people," he adds.

Each fellow's motivations to apply differ, as do their experiences in Washington. Abby Schneider, also a Congressional Fellow, spent childhood summers exploring tide pools on the Connecticut coast. In August, she finished a Ph.D. in marine, estuary, and environmental science at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory of the University of Maryland. She feels a responsibility to learn about the policy often intertwined with environmental science. On the advice of her graduate adviser, Schneider took a semester off from pursuing her doctorate to do a policy internship at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. She decided to apply for a congressional fellowship after seeing a presentation at an ACS meeting.

In Sen. Dianne Feinstein's (D-Calif.) office, Schneider focuses on water issues: "anything that is transported in the water, swims in the water, or is somehow related to the water," Schneider says. That includes perchlorate contamination, fisheries, endangered species, and climate change. She describes her role as "taking all of that scientific literature and translating it and bringing it to the attention of people who are in the policy field and could maybe act on it." Other Feinstein staff members turn to her as a general scientific resource.

Schneider loves the work and says that "anyone who is interested in learning better how the government works and how science is actually used by government officials" should apply for the fellowship. Her favorite part of the job: "I love trying to get people with different interests together and forming a consensus."

Similarly, as a Science Policy Fellow working at ACS, Kathryn Hughes participates in parts of the policy process that mostly occur off Capitol Hill.

Hughes completed her Ph.D. in analytical chemistry at the University of Michigan just before arriving in Washington for the start of the fellowship in September. One of her first tasks was to learn the Washington ways, including the funding structures and related budget cycles of different government agencies, historical spending at those agencies, and how to set up meetings with appropriators. She says the "Civics 101 lesson" from high school, describing how the bill becomes law, is a simplified version of the reality that numerous steps are involved in legislation.

"People get an impression that policymakers are in it for the short term and researchers for the long term," Hughes says. "Policymakers may be short term, but legislation is long term." Much like a laboratory experiment, she adds, legislation doesn't always work the first time, but participants learn from the process.

She has helped gather background information for the Legislative Action Network e-mails that go out to ACS members and has gone to Capitol Hill to speak with appropriators. Of her experience thus far, Hughes says, "I have a much stronger belief in the fact that people being involved, or at least being aware, can affect how science policy turns out."

Candidates for an ACS-sponsored fellowship must be ACS members and have an advanced degree or several years of experience in scientific or engineering disciplines. During their time in Washington, fellows receive a stipend, commensurate with experience, of between $50,000 and $60,000. ACS Congressional Fellows also work closely with the fellows sponsored by other science and engineering organizations. The American Association for the Advancement of Science coordinates a two-week training program for all fellows working on science policy in congressional and executive branch offices and assists them with interviewing for fellowship placement.

Since 1974, ACS has been sponsoring fellows, some of whom have worked on landmark legislation, including the original Toxic Substances Control Act and Superfund laws. All of the past and present fellows who spoke with C&EN highly recommend the fellowship to anyone with science policy interests. Former fellows take their experience to various kinds of jobs around the country. Some establish themselves in the government, be it on Capitol Hill, in federal agencies such as the Department of Energy, or at the state level. Others work in nonprofit organizations, companies, or academic settings.

Mimikakis spent one year as a fellow in Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert's (R-N.Y.) office and did many of the same kinds of tasks as Bernstein and Schneider. After the fellowship, he took an open position on Boehlert's staff. Mimikakis moved to the House Science Committee when Boehlert became its chair. First Mimikakis was staff director of the Subcommittee on Environment, Technology & Standards, and then he became deputy chief of staff for the full committee. He enjoyed working there until earlier this year, when he decided to take a job at a nonprofit organization so he would have time for family life. Now at Environmental Defense in Washington, D.C., he is the climate and air policy manager.

Several people have tackled both fellowships. Raymond J. Garant holds a master's degree in inorganic chemistry from Iowa State University. He was a Science Policy Fellow at ACS (1990-92) and a Congressional Fellow (1992-93) in the office of former Rep. Philip Sharp (D-Ind.) and currently runs the Public Policy Fellows program at ACS.

Michael Eichberg also experienced each fellowship. He finished a Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 2001 at the University of California, Berkeley. The policy aspects of drug development intrigued him; for example, why is more R&D money spent on cures for diseases that few people suffer from than is spent on more prevalent diseases like tuberculosis, which annually kills nearly 2 million people worldwide? To get a handle on the policy process, he started as a Science Policy Fellow (2001-03) and continued as a Congressional Fellow (2003-04.)

Eichberg's second day in his first fellowship was Sept. 11, 2001. New policy issues immediately sprang up, including the concept of homeland security. Eichberg worked on issues including research funding, chemical plant security, and journal publishing restrictions. As a Congressional Fellow on the former Select Committee on Homeland Security, his work in biodefense measures and chemical security continued on a theme of homeland security. After a stint as an independent consultant, Eichberg is the manager of science and technology at Biorosettex, a start-up company based in Virginia assisting the government in biodefense drug development. He is located at a satellite office in California, and his daily work now deals with the worlds of science, business, and government policy.

He says the fellowship exposed him to "a much wider variety of people and experiences, people who were not necessarily scientists but who had a lot of input into what scientists ultimately do." And in policy work, Eichberg adds, "your network is your life."

Likewise, as director of patents and licensing at the University of South Florida, Valerie L. McDevitt still finds the network among fellows a "tremendously useful" resource. She holds a law degree and was finishing a master's in analytical chemistry when she learned about fellowship opportunities. As a Congressional Fellow (1996-97), she joined the staff of the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure's Subcommittee on Water Resources & the Environment. McDevitt helped draft proposed amendments for the Clean Water Act.

Policy is considered a nontraditional career path within chemistry, but it is one that certainly can leave a lasting impact on a large number of people.

Applicants Sought

Interested in applying for a Public Policy Fellowship? For more information, go to or e-mail


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