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In a Diverse New Class of S&T Policy Fellows, the Quest for Impact is a Common Theme
Even as a young girl growing up in Panama, Carmen Yee-Batista was struck by the pervasiveness of contaminated water—fetid wastewater in the streets, foul pollution in the rivers and bays. Though she moved to California with her mother as a young woman, the memories helped steer her into a successful career as an engineer specializing in wastewater treatment and drinking water projects.
In the past few weeks, Yee-Batista has begun to re-orient her career as a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, assigned to the U.S. State Department's Office of Environmental Policy. "I'm going to be learning about policy-making, learning a new set of skills in a multi-disciplinary environment," she said recently, in the midst of the Fellows' intensive two-week orientation. "My hope is that I'll be able to bring those skills together and apply them to help develop policy that will encourage more sound and sustainable water projects."
While it's difficult to make generalizations about a diverse group of 162 early- to senior -career scientists who represent a spectrum of scientific and engineering disciplines, Yee-Batista's commitment to using her engineering skills to support policymaking based on good science—and improving people's lives—represents the prevailing spirit of the new Fellows class.
"The AAAS Fellowships provide mutual benefit," explained Cynthia Robinson, director of the S&T Policy Fellowships. "Congressional offices and federal agencies reap the Fellows' knowledge, analytical abilities, energy and external perspectives. The Fellows gain valuable new insights and skills that enhance their capacity to contribute even more, no matter what path they choose beyond the fellowship experience."
Now in their 34th year, the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowships have matched scientists and engineers with host offices in Washington, D.C., that are seeking scientific expertise. Fellows each year come from an array of fields—from agriculture and astronomy to neuroscience, defense technology and science education. Dozens of Fellows have stayed on to build high-impact careers in the federal government, while others have risen to leadership positions in private enterprise, academia, and non-governmental organizations.
"The Policy Fellowships are probably the best-known among AAAS's many S&T policy activities," said Al Teich, director of Science and Policy Programs at AAAS. "And it's an investment that continues to return dividends. The nearly 2,000 'alumni' contribute to improving the policy climate for science long after their fellowship years are over."
This year's class is the biggest in the history of the program. The Fellows range in age from 25 to 72. As in recent years, fellowships were awarded in six categories: Congressional; Diplomacy; Energy, Environment, Agriculture, & Natural Resources; Health, Education, and Human Services; National Defense & Global Security; and a single Roger Revelle Fellowship in Global Stewardship.
In interviews, several 2007-08 Fellows said they wanted to explore life beyond the lab. They're drawn to work that crosses disciplines. They tend to have a streak of idealism, and some expressed frustration that U.S. policy has failed to sufficiently address critical challenges. Several described the fellowship as a career experiment with an enormous upside.
As the fellowships started this fall, groups convened around critical issues: the intersection of science and security; intellectual property; and sustainability.
On the first morning of orientation for the new class last month at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., climate and energy scientist Holmes Hummel made an announcement: Fellows interested in sustainability issues—climate change, energy, and environmental issues—would be holding a brief lunchtime get-acquainted meeting.
In all, 35 showed up—a clear signal that sustainability issues have become a galvanizing concern for many of the Fellows in the new class. That continues a recent trend: Two years ago, a group of Fellows met monthly to address sustainability and water issues; last year, a group met regularly to share resources and collaborate on sustainability problems, including climate change.
"What I witnessed was a type of resolve," said Hummel, a Congressional Fellow. "For the last 10 years, we've heard from every corner of social leadership that climate change and national security issues, related, will be major problems for our generation. Now we're seeing more early-stage career scientists answering the call."
Even as a teenager, Hummel had been interested in environmental issues; in graduate studies and in consulting work after receiving a doctorate, she explored global energy scenarios that chart paths toward climate stabilization. Many of the current threats to the environment represent policy failures that persist, she said.
Why seek a Congressional Science Fellowship? "I found it to be very frustrating... [to be] sitting on the sidelines of a social process that's truly inadequate to the task at hand," Hummel replied.
"I've chosen to apprentice myself to public policy as a way to explore how I can better contribute to decisions I think are consequential if we expect our society to be able to respond on a scale that can meet the challenges and on a time-frame that can make a difference."
Different Fellows in the sustainability cadre come at the issues from different angles.
Adrienne Huston started her fellowship in 2006, but she chose to extend her stay at the National Science Foundation (NSF) Office of International Science & Engineering for a second year. Before that, her focus had been on environmental and climate issues at the micro-scale and research issues at the global scale. She'd never imagined herself in government work.
"I've always been interested in large processes," said Huston, "and bacteria are a part of every process." During four trips to the Arctic with multi-national teams and two years at the University of Liège in Belgium, she focused her research on psycrophiles—bacteria that thrive in cold water—and the enzymes that enable them to decompose organic matter to obtain energy and building blocks for their cells. The process is so broad and so systemic in the polar regions that it can have an impact on global CO2 levels.
But in those years, two things happened: She saw how a common scientific goal can unite people of different cultures. And she became uncertain that the conventional academic life and pursuit of tenure would be fulfilling. That led her to the AAAS Fellowships and to NSF, where she serves in the Office of International Science and Engineering.
"I enjoy the boundaries between different groups," she said. "I enjoy the systems analysis approach to things. I want to understand how science is done in a society... Where do we want to be in 20 years, and how do we get there?"
Where Huston focused on bacteria, physicist L. Jeremy Richardson has a planetary perspective. At the University of Colorado and at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Godard Space Flight Center, he spent six years studying HD209458b, a planet 150 light years from Earth. By evaluating its emission spectrum, he and his colleagues determined that the planet has no water—a conclusion that generated a major scientific publication and attention in top news media.
It was "a fun and exciting roller-coaster ride," Richardson said. But by late 2005, he'd begun to wonder whether there was more to life than crunching numbers. When encouraged to apply for a good tenure-track physics post at a good university, "I couldn't even muster up the energy to apply for it," he recalled. "I look back and see that as a watershed moment."
What he wanted was a more earthly assignment. "I came to realize I wanted to do something related to the environment," Richardson continued. "That's always been really important to me... It's how I want to make a difference in the world." This year he was selected for the Revelle Fellowship, named for the late Roger Revelle, a leader in the international sustainability realm and former president of AAAS. Richardson will take on duties that depart from the Fellows' usual government assignments: He'll work on climate change issues in a non-profit organization headed by former Vice President Al Gore. Only the Revelle Fellowship allows placements in D.C.-area environmental NGOs as well as in the congressional and executive branches.
The themes that emerge in talking with Huston and Richardson crop up in interviews with other Fellows, too.
Lekelia "Kiki" Jenkins
Lekelia "Kiki" Jenkins had done her scholarly work in marine conservation and related technologies, with a focus on evidence-based analysis of which conservation practices work and which don't. But she suspected that the conventional academic course might be limiting.
"I don't want to have to compromise and spend five or seven years doing work that someone else tells me is important before I can get down to doing the things that are really going to affect the quality of life for people and animals in this world," Jenkins said.
This year, she'll work with the Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Frances Colón was doing research in neural cells, but she made time for community involvement—mentoring young people, Latino arts and culture, politics and other endeavors. That extracurricular work "gave me a sense of how little science the community actually understands but how many of the decisions we make at the polls involves at least a grasp of science," Colón explained. "I became more and more interested in the decisions being made by the government that affected my community, especially those that involved science, education and health policy."
At the same time, teaching at the high school and college level gave her troubling insights into the failings of the education system.
The S&T Policy Fellowships "seemed like an opportunity to use my experiences and knowledge to shape policy, to influence the outcome of government decisions that affect our everyday lives at every level even though we are not aware, most of the time, that they do," she said. "I wanted to be a part of the process and help to make a change, no matter how small. Instead of feeling disappointed all the time, I could now take action." This fall—her second as a Fellow—she'll continue her work in the State Department's Office of Policy Coordination and Initiatives in the Oceans, Environment and International Scientific Affairs Bureau, where she is the Near Eastern Affairs regional officer for policy coordination. Her principle assignment: helping to build institutions and prospects to support S&T education in the Muslim world.
"The US is well-respected for its S&T in these communities," Colón said, "and that makes science cooperation through education partnerships a wise tool for building bridges of communication and improving relations with the Muslim world."
Scott Boyle was a science whiz from an early age, but by the end of his high school years, he was drawn to political science, too. In his graduate work at Yale University, he studied molecular biophysics and biochemistry, and did his dissertation on two molecules that had been shown to be important in brain development; the molecules may link to Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia, and autism.
"I like to understand processes at the molecular and atomic level, especially life processes," he explained.
Despite the success of his graduate studies, Boyle, too, acknowledges some dissatisfaction with lab work. As an S&T Policy Fellow with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, he'll be working on an initiative that's at the horizon of future medicine: personalized health care, in which therapies can be tailored to individuals at the genetic level, and specifically at how genetic testing will be related to such care.
"It's a really exciting placement," Boyle said. "My first goal is to get a better understanding of how the process of government and policy works. Hopefully, I'll be able to contribute to that based on my scientific training. I want to get an experience so that I can see if this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. It could, potentially, have a big impact on the trajectory I take."
Ultimately, Boyle doesn't know where he'll end up after the fellowship. It could be in government. It could be in business. It could be back in the lab. For him—and for other Fellows—that's the nature of the experiment. And, some say, the beauty of it.
Huston says the experience gained in the fellowship will help her no matter what she does. She'd be a better adviser to students, better able to write grant proposals. Or she could go into industry, trying to translate the processes of the cold-water bacteria into a process for manufacturing biofuels at cold temperatures.
Richardson, too, sees a number of options in his future. But for now, he's focused on the work at hand. He and the other Fellows in the sustainability group plan to meet regularly in the months ahead to discuss the issues and their work. And, he noted, this is a hot time for climate, energy and environmental issues in Congress.
"There's a lot of momentum on the Hill right now," he said. "It's certain going to be an exciting fall."
Edward W. Lempinen
5 October 2007