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Diverse Class of AAAS S&T Policy Fellows Shares Ambition
On opening day of orientation for the new class of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows, a senior AAAS officer asked the eager, chatty group of Ph.D.-level scientists how they expected their lives to change now that they were undertaking new assignments in Washington.
“I’m a large-animal veterinarian,” responded Richard Smilie. “I think that says enough.”
Indeed. Smilie has been in veterinary practice for 22 years, most of it in rural Oregon, and is making one of the more striking transitions among the 255 Fellows in this year’s record-breaking class.
“I’ve really always wanted to do this,” said Smilie. He has drawn some inspiration from his local member of Congress, Kurt Schrader, a Democrat who is the only veterinarian serving in Congress. Smilie, 45, will be assigned to a congressional office for his fellowship year.
He has a particular interest in the intersection of animal and human health and noted that 3 out of 4 infectious diseases in humans have origins in animal populations. He also expects his background in small business and agriculture (he grew up pulling weeds out of soybean fields and detasseling corn on his grandparents’ farm in Illinois) could be of help on the Hill.
Mostly, Smilie said, he is just committed to “being the best congressional fellow that I can be this year” and let his future work itself out from there. He is selling his veterinary practice and will be joined in Washington by his wife and “a large four-legged family” of dogs and cats.
The S&T Policy Fellows roster of 255 includes 180 first-year Fellows and 75 second-year Fellows in the executive branch. Smilie joins 34 other congressional fellows, most of them sponsored by partner scientific and engineering societies (Smilie is sponsored by the American Veterinary Medicine Association). There are 220 Fellows in executive branch agencies in areas such as diplomacy, security, energy, environment, agriculture, and health and human services.
The annual class size has been growing steadily, thanks to support from executive branch agencies and partner organizations. There were 210 Fellows in 2010, up from 137 in 2005. Cynthia Robinson, the director of the program, said the goal is “to build a cadre of policy-savvy scientists and engineers.” Many stay in Washington to take up permanent positions on Capitol Hill and in federal agencies where they continue to offer a scientist’s tools and perspectives on many of the most urgent issues of the day, including food safety, clean water, energy and climate, infectious diseases, and national security.
Like Smilie, other incoming Fellows were enthusiastic about the challenges and rewards of working in Washington.
Emma Delva, 31, a cell biologist who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., said she “was one of those kids who knew in the 7th grade” that she wanted to be a scientist. She attributed it to some great middle-school teachers, including a 7th grade teacher who got her involved in science fairs and used lots of interactive methods in the classroom. “I was hooked,” Delva said. She remembers ambitions of becoming a pharmacologist because it was a field “where I could help people.”
Delva received her Ph.D. in cell biology from Emory University in Atlanta and did a postdoc in immunology at the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. But while she did well in lab science, Delva said she wanted to do more than publish research papers. “The bench just wasn’t where I was happy,” she said. She aspired to do work that “would help the greater public at large.” That drew her to the S&T Policy Fellows program where she will be working at the U.S. Agency for International Development in its Office of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment.
“I’m very excited about it,” Delva said. “It’s not an office I saw myself working in.” She is looking forward to learning about women’s rights issues in developing countries. She also has an interest in doing health education in vulnerable communities.
Benjamin Cohen, a 28-year-old mechanical engineer with a specialty in fluid mechanics, said he has always been interested in science. “I don’t understand how people are interested in anything else,” Cohen said. “You see the world happening and [ask] how’s that work? Science is going to give you the answers.” As a graduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he became politically active on the student senate and started a student sustainability task force.
“You can stay in the lab all day, but if you don’t get out there and actually do something with what science is telling you, you’re not really going to make a contribution,” Cohen said. “I felt I was good with people, and I wanted to affect society.” He will have an opportunity to pursue those ambitions as a congressional fellow.
Emily Grumbling, a physical chemist who also majored in film as an undergraduate at Bard College, said she has always had wide-ranging interests and never expected “to limit myself to just one thing.” After six years of demanding work in graduate school, Grumbling said, she felt it was “time to open up, try to see a bigger context” on how science might help bring some positive changes in society. She’ll be a congressional fellow and does not rule out going back to the bench. “At this point, I don’t know,” Grumbling said. “I just want to see what’s out there.”
23 September 2011