Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Chemist's Road Less Traveled

My parents are the reason I am interested in policy. From watching the national news after dinner every evening to attending protests, I was raised with an awareness of political happenings in the world. They also encouraged me to think independently about my views of current events, which apparently worked because we definitely don’t agree on every issue. Some differences, while very slight, were made abundantly clear during the 2008 presidential primary when my dad and I had multiple heated arguments over which candidate was a better choice for president.

At a very young age, my political interests developed an environmental bend. Being determined to convey my concerns to people who actually made the decisions, I wrote a letter to President Clinton at 11 years old about US policies that promoted rainforest destruction. For my seventh grade science project, I doused 32 plants with common chemicals we use, such as antifreeze and dish soap, and charted the impacts on the plants’ growth. My mother claims she found this phase in my life to be extremely cute, but I'm not so sure she felt that way at the time.

My interest in developing a scientific framework to understand science policy issues led me to declare chemistry as my major in college, which seemed to naturally blend into starting a graduate degree in chemistry in the fall of 2004. I quickly discovered lab work is an interesting mix of gut wrenching setbacks peppered with euphoric successes, making an interesting roller coaster ride. However, the part I enjoyed most was developing projects, which required me to learn absolutely everything I could about a topic inside and out and present a compressed summary to my research group.

Early on, a senior graduate student in my lab suggested that because of my communication skills and interest in politics, I might enjoy a career in science policy. The idea took hold and I never let go. From that point forward, when people asked what I was going to do with my degree, I told them I was going to give science policy a try.

Fast-forward to 2009: I defended my dissertation mid-July and was faced with the hard reality that I had a great idea of what I would want to do for my career but had not yet found an appropriate job to begin the transition. The problem I was facing is that most political jobs do not consider 9 years in the laboratory as valuable ‘work experience’. So then just how was I supposed to ‘break into’ science policy?

There was a general consensus among my fellow classmates who were graduating that no one really knew what they specifically wanted to do in the long run, but the majority prolonged the decision by starting down the standard career route of a chemist, which is applying for post-doctoral research positions. But I didn’t want to wait to begin studying the interface of science and policy, so I simply packed up my things and moved to Washington, DC where I began working as a legislative intern for a Congressman… for free.

I had an amazing time on the Hill. During my internship, I recognized quickly that there are a whole new set of rules at play, which I am going to have to learn to navigate. A lot more goes into a policy decisions than the science. I made a few friends and learned a lot about the political process; however, a three month crash course was not enough to help me break into policy and I needed more opportunities.

One incredible way for scientists to learn about the policy-making process is through a science policy fellowship. Probably the best known is the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellowship. However, there are many more opportunities and a long list has been conveniently compiled by Sheril Kirshenbaum of The Intersection.

I was fortunate enough to become a Science Policy Fellow at Research!America. I’m really enjoying working for a non-profit organization, it has been a valuable learning experience. The question is, what am I going to choose to do with this?

Six months ago I set out on my personal "road less traveled" (compared to a post doc or life in industry) and I had no idea where the adventure would lead. I couldn't be happier with that decision. I hope I have the same luck when I reach the next fork in my road.

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