Credit: James Kegley | These six chemists came to Washington to learn about government through the American Association for the Advancement of Science policy fellowships.
On a broiling day in Washington, DC, six chemists joined hundreds of PhD scientists packed in a predictably overchilled hotel conference room. This wasn’t your standard chemistry conference, though. They were there to learn about the US government.
Six chemists came to the US capital in the fall of 2018 to learn how the US government works. They spent a year working in federal agencies and Congress as part of a science policy fellowship program. The lessons they learned could help scientists outside the Beltway navigate the government and influence its policy priorities.
These scientists were gathered for the first day of orientation for a yearlong fellowship, the equivalent of a postdoc in science policy. The chemists came to their positions in Congress and the executive branch with different levels of experience. What they had in common was wanting to learn more about how science is used in government, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellowship was one of the top ways to find out.
C&EN followed these six chemists for their 2018–19 fellowship year and talked to others who had done the fellowship in the past. All learned some surprising lessons about how government works—and how scientific expertise fits into the complicated policy ecosystem.
The fellows say there are many things that scientists watching from the outside often misunderstand about the government. They also have advice for what scientists could do better when trying to understand and influence policy, in a time of immense conflict between Republicans and Democrats.
“You have to understand that you’re coming into a war zone, and these two sides are in the trenches fighting each other,” says John Mimikakis, a former AAAS policy fellow who is now vice president for the Environmental Defense Fund’s oceans program. “If you stand up and start reading a dissertation, you’re going to get shot by both sides.”
An organic chemist turned biophysicist, Margaret R. Lentz worked as a government contractor for a half-dozen years, specializing in infectious diseases, image analysis, and machine learning. But she had a hard time turning her work as a contractor into a permanent job.
So when she heard about the AAAS fellowship, she thought it might be a way to make that transition and pursue her interest in policy. “You just get thrown in, and you have to figure out your surroundings and adapt to it,” Lentz says. “It takes being bright enough to know how to use your chemistry knowledge and apply it to real-life situations we never dreamed of.”
▸ Hometown: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
▸ PhD: Physical organic chemistry, Purdue University, 2002
▸ Work experience: Biophysicist, Massachusetts General Hospital; radiology faculty, Harvard Medical School; biomedical imaging physicist specializing in infectious diseases, image analysis, and machine learning, primarily as a contractor at the National Institutes of Health
▸ Fellowship placement: Office of Strategic Planning and Programming, Defense Programs Office, National Nuclear Security Administration, Department of Energy
▸ Now: Special adviser, Artificial Intelligence and Technology Office, Department of Energy
Lentz was a fellow in the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the part of the Department of Energy dealing with the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile and other national security issues. Her office worked with Congress on the NNSA’s budget, putting forward the agency’s priorities and responding to questions. She learned that “everything flows from Congress,” she says, including money and new programs.
During her fellowship, one of her tasks was writing several chapters in a plan to manage the US nuclear weapons stockpile. “You realize you’re not just writing this book to throw information out there,” she says. The book is designed to help congressional members and their staffs answer questions about stockpile stewardship. “You send an actual message to Congress as to what you find important right now,” she says.
From what Lentz has seen, scientists often fall down in their policy work by trying to dictate a particular path rather than listening. Science is set up to be adversarial, Lentz says, but that isn’t usually the best way to get someone to fund your program.
Scientists often come in to government acting like they know everything, Lentz says. They need to remind themselves that even if the government employees aren’t scientists, they are often experts in their fields. “Good scientists can’t possibly know everything,” she says.
Rather than pushing particular outcomes, scientists need to work to “accept that people have other opinions and be able to figure out how to have a discussion without arguing,” Lentz says. “You can really affect opinions about whether they ever want to work with you.”
The listening and persuasion skills that Lentz developed during her time at the NNSA are going to be especially important in her new full-time job, in a Department of Energy office tasked with coordinating everything the agency is doing with artificial intelligence, a White House priority. “We want to know what everyone else is doing and to bring people together because AI expertise is all over the world,” she says.
Drew Story once thought he wanted to be a chemistry teacher, because he loved his science classes and teaching others about science. But the red tape of the public education system turned him off from the K–12 arena. He considered becoming a chemistry professor instead, but he realized during his PhD program that university faculty often spend more time writing grants than actually teaching.
▸ Hometown: White Oak, Texas
▸ PhD: Chemical and environmental engineering, University of California, Riverside, 2018
▸ Fellowship placement: Office of Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE)
▸ Now: Legislative assistant, office of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH)
Story was looking for another path when he heard about the AAAS policy fellowship. “I was struggling with not wanting to be an academic,” he remembers. He was attracted to the fellowship because “I could use my expertise and I could do what I’m good at, which is being able to talk to people,” he says.
Story wanted to work in Congress, and he ended up in the office of Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, one of the only chemists in Congress.
It didn’t take long for him to learn the value that politicians place on hearing from voters. Story started his fellowship the week of the contentious hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, now a Supreme Court justice. Coons is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and his office heard constantly from the public.
A few months later, part of the government shut down over a funding disagreement with the White House. Story volunteered to meet with or answer calls from constituents, and he talked to over 300 concerned citizens. Every constituent call and letter is recorded and used as part of the senator’s decision-making process, Story says.
“I never had to be so polished and diplomatic when answering the phone before,” says Story, whose fellowship was funded by the American Chemical Society (ACS publishes C&EN). Also, “It’s remarkable to me that anybody can just walk in off the street and into a senator’s office.”
Aside from interacting with constituents, Story also had a chance to write energy and environmental legislation, seek Republican and Democratic cosponsors, and even draft a climate change speech for Coons—then accompany him as he delivered it on the Senate floor.
As he did that work, “I did not interact with scientists as much as I thought I would,” Story says. He heard more from trade groups and lobbyists than researchers, he says. He’d like to see individual scientists step up more, like constituents did regarding Kavanaugh and the shutdown.
Many scientists say they can’t get involved in politics because they think it will weaponize science, says Story, who has moved into a permanent job as a legislative assistant for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire. But that is already happening, and it has been for decades, Story says.
“You’re allowed to be an engaged citizen constituent,” he says. “You don’t have to be banging a drum in your congressman’s office, but don’t abdicate from working or contributing to society in a political way just because you’re doing scientific research.”
Joelle A. Labastide had never heard of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) when the agency requested an interview with her hoping she would spend her fellowship there.
▸ Hometown: San Juan, Trinidad
▸ PhD: Physical chemistry, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2015
▸ Fellowship placement: Monitoring and Evaluation Division, Department of Policy and Evaluation, and Human and Community Development Practice Group, Department of Compact Operations, Millennium Challenge Corporation
▸ Now: Second year, Millennium Challenge Corporation fellowship
Coming out of a postdoc in biophysics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Labastide was frustrated with her experience as a black woman in science. She hoped to use her fellowship to help her understand the big picture of how the science education system fails underrepresented minorities and women.
But her MCC interview left her intrigued by its international development mission, which touches on education as well as health, infrastructure, and other projects aimed at reducing global poverty. “It gives me an amazing opportunity to potentially look at all of these interconnected pieces and at the way that changes actually affect people,” she says.
What’s more, the MCC is committed to collecting data and independently evaluating each of its projects, “an awesome playground for somebody who loves data and information,” Labastide says. So she decided to accept the MCC position.
Her mentors—both women, in a reversal from Labastide’s science days—gave her the freedom to figure out how she wanted to contribute. She started a project to help the agency, which is just 15 years old, track its projects’ goals and identify whether the outcomes match them. While groups were doing this on their own, the MCC didn’t have a systematic way to synthesize and analyze the results so people could use them to improve.
Getting the project off the ground required Labastide to step out of her comfort zone. As chemists, “most of us are used to being left alone in the lab and not having to talk to another person for a while,” Labastide says. The outcome-tracking project, however, required her to interact with people from many disciplines, such as economics and public health, each with its own rules and conventions. They all make decisions based on evidence, she says, but it’s not the same way that scientists use evidence. “I feel out of place, but in a productive way,” she says. “I definitely feel like I’m observing something that’s still very foreign to me.”
In science, she says, you make a tool, you show people it’s useful, and they start using it. At the MCC, however, she needed to personally convince people that her tool would help them. In government, many decisions are made one on one or in small groups rather than through announcements in publications or at meetings, she says. “Everything that you are going to do is probably going to require buy-in and participation of someone else.”
And scientists can learn to be an important part of that effort. “Trust that your analytical skills—your ability to figure things out—is actually your best product,” whether you’re in the lab or in policy, says Labastide, who is staying on for a second year at the MCC. “There’s no reason to fear something because it’s outside of your wheelhouse.”
Teresa Williams upended her life in California to move to Washington, DC, for her fellowship, giving up a job at a national lab and leaving behind a newly renovated house in San Francisco.
▸ Hometown: Fairfield, California
▸ PhD: Applied science and technology, University of California, Berkeley, 2017
▸ Work experience: Researcher, Molecular Foundry, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; researcher, Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research
▸ Fellowship placement: House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee
▸ Now: Pursuing policy-related employment opportunities in DC
So when she started her fellowship on the Democratic staff of the US House Energy and Commerce Committee, she was ready to get to work.
But Congress had other priorities. Williams started her fellowship right before midterm elections, so Congress was taking multiple breaks for campaigning.
Things didn’t get much better right after the election, either. The change in leadership was good news for her—the Democrats were now in the majority—but it also meant shuffling committee members and staff, plus a move to a new building, which took weeks to work out.
“I was not prepared for the way the calendar really ebbed and flowed,” says Williams, whose fellowship was funded by ACS.
Determined not to waste her time in DC, she went to talks and other events across the city to learn more about topics that interested her and to meet people. “I love how accessible people are at events here in DC,” she says. Even with high-powered people, “you can show up and engage with them.”
For a while she wondered whether she had made the wrong choice to go to Congress rather than take a position in the executive branch. As Congress finally got moving again, “There is a lot of uncertainty until you know what the priorities are,” Williams says. In the case of the House, initially those priorities were health care and climate change.
But soon Williams did get more projects. She worked on memos for congressional hearings, such as one about energy-saving efforts in federal buildings. She also wrote two bills to improve electric vehicle infrastructure and reduce emissions. Both were included in the recently announced CLEAN Future Act.
Then priorities shifted right into her chemistry sweet spot. Williams worked on a hearing about banning asbestos, writing talking points and questions for members of the committee. And she was asked to work on a bill that would regulate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), including helping come up with an all-encompassing definition to regulate PFAS as a class. Williams was also asked to assist the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) with a bill to regulate street analogs of fentanyl, which included briefing the team on basic organic chemistry. Using her chemistry experience in that way was “a lot of fun,” she says.
The PFAS bill didn’t pass before her fellowship ended in August 2019. “It was challenging for me. If I put my heart into a project, I want to know that I’ll be able to see it through,” Williams says. The bill passed the House in January 2020.
But that’s part of the learning process about Congress, she says. Something you start one year might take 2 or 5 or more years to pass. It can be frustrating, but it also shows people’s commitment to the political process.
“Living in California, I felt very disconnected from Washington, DC, and what was happening in government,” she says. “In the Bay Area, people like to yell and scream about things they don’t like, but it feels like here folks are actually motivated and mobilized to do something about it. It’s been great to be a part of that.”
After getting her PhD, Monique Pond knew she didn’t want to become an academic, but otherwise she wasn’t sure what career she wanted.
▸ Hometown: McKinney, Texas
▸ PhD: Analytical chemistry, Pennsylvania State University, 2010
▸ Work experience: Regulatory medical writer and consultant, primarily for Whitsell Innovations
▸ Fellowship placement: Small Business Innovation Research Development Center, National Cancer Institute
▸ Now: Program director, same office as her fellowship
She completed a postdoc at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and then worked for several years at a regulatory writing firm. She enjoyed it but eventually decided she wanted to change career tracks. So she decided to apply for the AAAS policy fellowship, hoping for a health-related position.
Pond got a fellowship at the National Cancer Institute’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Development Center. SBIR is a government-wide program that helps support budding entrepreneurs or small businesses through the often-fatal rough patch from start-up to successful business.
Right off the bat, Pond found that her science knowledge and regulatory background were appreciated in her fellowship. Within weeks, she was traveling to conferences and meeting with potential grantees about SBIR programs.
At SBIR, Pond used her previous regulatory work to help design a program to demystify the Food and Drug Administration approval processes for SBIR-supported companies. “Sometimes companies can be a little hesitant” to contact the FDA if they are not familiar with the processes, but that can lead to misunderstandings and confusion, Pond says. The program she developed should make sure everybody is on the same page when a company sends its medical device or medicine to the agency.
Before coming to Washington, Pond heard a lot of complaints about the government. But after working in the National Cancer Institute, Pond thinks there are a lot of misperceptions.
“People in general have a perception that government is really slow,” she says. But that isn’t what she has found working on the inside. A process might look slow from the outside because the agencies are required to work through specific steps. “Actually, the day-to-day work is quite fast paced,” Pond says.
Government employees also get a bad rap, Pond says. The workers she has met usually make less in government than they would in industry, but they are choosing to work where they can make a difference. “People who are drawn to the government are very passionate about the areas where they are working and the opportunities they have to make it better,” she says.
And now she’s one of them—she has taken a staff position in the SBIR office working full-time with small businesses.
The first time Danielle Lohman thought about science as a policy issue was when she went to an event at the Wisconsin State Capitol to raise awareness of rare diseases. A biochemistry PhD student at the time, she found herself there with physicians, patients, pharmacists, and other advocates all rallying around the cause.
“That was pretty powerful,” she remembers.
So when Lohman decided she didn’t want to pursue an academic career, she thought first about a career in policy. She was especially drawn to international work after her University of Wisconsin lab’s multinational collaborations and a summer spent working on global health security issues. The AAAS fellowship seemed like a good way to get her foot in the door.
After snagging a fellowship in the Department of State, Lohman began working in an office that supports the US contributions to the international Biological Weapons Convention, which prohibits the development, production, or stockpiling of biological weapons. The only full-time scientist in her office, she was charged with leading the science and technology efforts.
Lohman was quickly pulled into diplomatic efforts, attending international meetings in Paris and Geneva to talk about policy points on which countries can reach agreement and work together. Lohman was even asked to speak on behalf of the US government in Switzerland and in Washington.
▸ Hometown: Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina
▸ PhD: Biochemistry, University of Wisconsin–Madison, 2017
▸ Fellowship placement: Office of the Biological Policy Staff, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, Department of State
▸ Now: Second year, Department of State fellowship
“It is nerve racking because public speaking was never my thing,” she says. “My biggest issue so far has been remembering to turn my microphone on and off” so the translators could hear her talk.
In these formal settings, Lohman says an important part of contributing to the conversation is knowing the rules and procedures of multilateral diplomacy. Even with those rules, however, “it almost seems like everyone’s going off in different directions. But if you pay very close attention, you can find commonalities,” she says. “You thread all of the pieces together and then shift it toward a useful direction.”
In addition to her work on countering biological weapons, Lohman helped organize a national meeting on biosafety research for workers in the federal government.
Lohman particularly loves thinking about how science might inform these big-picture issues. For example, how would scientific evidence inform an investigation into the use of a biological weapon? Or how can research form the basis for biosafety recommendations?
She is a different kind of translator, says Lohman, who is staying at the Department of State for a second year. “I’ve realized I don’t feel the need to be the kind of person that talks about the science,” she says. But she does like being there to make sure scientists are understood. “We have to make sure that people who don’t have a science background know what the scientists are saying.”
Vicki Gunderson is one of the only PhD scientists who works at the US International Trade Administration. “I sometimes joke that I speak a different language,” she says. “My colleagues speak Russian and Mandarin. I speak nerd.”
A trained chemist, Gunderson likely wouldn’t be working on US environmental trade policy today without her introduction to government through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellowships.
It’s important to have people trained as scientists also working in government, says Gunderson, who was a fellow first in Congress and then in the Department of State. “These are the people coming up with the big-picture ideas that fund most academic research, the policies that affect the innovation ecosystem,” she says.
Since 1973, more than 3,000 PhD scientists like Gunderson have worked in government for a year or two through the fellowship program. The program “really shows them what is possible” in policy, says program director Jennifer Pearl, a former fellow herself.
For many fellows, the experience is life changing. Approximately one-third—many directly out of PhD programs or postdocs—end up making a career in government. One-third end up in another job, such as at a nonprofit or company. And one-third return to work in academia.
Chris Avery, a former fellow, says the program helped him understand the difference between science and politics. “We as a society use science to mediate factual disputes. But politics is how we mediate values disputes,” says Avery, who works at the US Global Change Research Program. “The scientists who are most effective at working in the real world are the ones who recognize there are two parts.”
Federal agencies, Congress, and even the judiciary are desperate for scientific expertise, Pearl says. The AAAS policy fellowship program has expanded over the years from annual cohorts of 7 fellows to over 250, and it can’t keep up with demand, Pearl says. Funding is provided by agencies and, for congressional fellows, by more than 30 sponsoring societies, including the American Chemical Society (ACS publishes C&EN).
“It’s hard to find good scientific talent and people who can communicate well and think outside the box,” Pearl says.
This demand shows that scientists—despite what they may think—are particularly well suited to working in government, says former fellow Christina Murata, who worked in multiple jobs in defense and national security before becoming a managing director at the consulting firm Deloitte.
One reason scientists don’t see themselves in policy roles is that they don’t view government as a fact-driven place, but that’s not the case, Murata says. Data are valued, even if “the perfect, data-driven decision does not always win for a variety of reasons,” she says.
Scientists’ strength is that they are taught to be independent thinkers and to be able to pull together disparate pieces of information, she says. They also regularly work on multidisciplinary and international teams. “Scientists don’t consider the broad applicability of what their training has prepared them for,” Murata says.
The fellowships are valuable even for the fellows who return to academia. After his time as a fellow, chemist Randy Wadkins returned to his faculty job at the University of Mississippi—then ran for US Congress in 2018.
Wadkins didn’t make it to Congress, but he still thinks scientists can learn a lot by working in government. Scientists are terrible about communicating to members of Congress what they actually do, Wadkins says. When people come to lobby their member of Congress, “they can’t even tell folks why they are there. And that’s not very effective.”
Another former fellow, Seth Cohen of the University of California San Diego, spent his first sabbatical year in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He returned to UCSD but started a science policy internship program in DC for science students as part of National Science Foundation grant requirements to have “broader impacts” beyond advancing knowledge.
Cohen encourages everyone who thinks government could be better to spend some time working there. “It’s worth your while to go try to have that impact for a couple of years,” he says. Cohen just started a second stint in government, as a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
As for the AAAS policy fellowships, Cohen says, “I tell people all the time if you want to work in science policy, I think it’s absolutely the best career stepping stone.”
Update: This article was updated on Feb. 21, 2020, to include a bonus podcast and its script about the AAAS policy fellowship.