Amanda Herrmann Gets People Excited about Medical Research

Amanda Herrmann. Credit: Dwight C. Andrews/McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Office of Communications

Amanda Herrmann is just starting out in her career as a medical researcher, but she already has a passion for science advocacy that she says comes from her personal understanding of the deep commitment it takes to push forward our understanding of the universe.

Herrmann, a PhD candidate in immunology and a fourth-year medical student, found her way into science advocacy on the national level through the annual Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) workshop in Washington, DC, in April 2016. The CASE workshop is run by the AAAS Office of Government Relations (OGR). "It's a great crash course for people who are interested in science advocacy," Herrmann said.

The United States Congress budgets funds to be disbursed through research grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for "basic" science, and through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for medical research. There's a great deal of competition for federal money from other groups, however. Increasingly, scientists are volunteering to make the case themselves for why the country should invest in their work.

"I really believe in the importance of people who are passionate about science sharing with people who aren't in science. If I'm not going to do it, and my colleague isn't going to [do] it, then who is?" Herrmann said.

The CASE workshop gives fledgling advocates the toolbox they'll need and then opens some very big doors for them. Dozens of undergraduate and graduate students attend every year. Most are underwritten by their universities, but Herrmann was one of two students sponsored by AAAS in 2016. During the three-and-a-half-day workshop, Herrmann's cohort of more than 90 students learned the basics of science advocacy, and how to frame a successful meeting with members of Congress and their staff. On the last day, workshop participants visited their legislators on Capitol Hill to try out their new skills. OGR staff members went with them. "They're very experienced," Herrmann said.

Visiting the offices of the Texas senators and representatives was a real education, she said. "You only get 10 or 15 minutes, and that's probably with a staffer, not your legislator. But Congressional staffers can push the notes they take about your presentation onto the Congressman's desk, or they can put them in the trash, so making a connection with them is the key to successful advocacy. If the staff doesn't believe in your cause, then there's an even smaller chance the Congressman will make an effort on your behalf. Knowing what will be memorable, knowing your audience, knowing what you want to get out of the meeting" — an advocate has to be clear on all that going in, she said.

In September of 2017, the OGR sponsored Herrmann during a second visit to Washington, for the annual Rally for Medical Research, to raise public awareness "that NIH funding is important and needs to be sustained," she said. There, on a special "Hill Day" visit, she had a chance to remind staffers for Texas senators and representatives that science is a major factor in her state's economy.

In her work as a graduate student, Herrmann, who began an MD-PhD training program at the University of Texas in Houston in 2009, was part of a team that developed a novel type of immunotherapy as a treatment for myeloid leukemia. That's exciting stuff, but Herrmann knows that even the most promising new therapy will take a long time to develop and test.

"I think people don't realize that cures aren't going to happen next year, that there's a lot of validating involved," she said. "It's those scientists working in the lab themselves who can explain how slow science can be."

Herrmann grew up in a suburb of Denver, Colorado. Her family had moved there from Texas, and her parents are back in Texas now. Her father builds cabinets and her mother is a mortgage banker. She thinks that might be how she got her true start in science advocacy, explaining her work to her family.

Her first official advocacy came early in medical school, at rallies with "First Tuesdays at the Capitol" in Austin with the Texas Medical Association. Later, she attended events and eventually served on the board of the Gulf Coast chapter of the Association of Women in Science, which advocates for women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. Then, AAAS invited her to attend the CASE workshop.

Herrmann is wrapping up her PhD and expects to graduate from medical school next spring. She has applied for a residency in dermatology, hoping to bring her two pursuits together by becoming a practicing dermatologist and doing research as well in diseases that affect the skin.

When she started the MD/PhD program at UT Houston, an admissions officer asked her, "Where do you see yourself in 10 years?" She said, "'Just finishing up this program.' It's what you're supposed to say, so they'll know you know what you're in for. It's a long haul, but that's okay with me."

Herrmann said it's relatively easy to get people excited about her work because she's looking for cures for diseases that could affect them or their loved ones. At the CASE workshop she attended, though, she met a graduate student in chemistry who expressed his frustration with the way people tend to dismiss the importance of his work, even though, as Herrmann noted, chemistry provides "the building blocks everything else is built on." She's heartened that scientists like him are determined to make the case to the public for their work, too. She said, “That's great for the scientific community as a whole.”

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