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Jesus Alvelo: AAAS Policy Fellow Turns from Bacteria to Budgets

Jesus Alvelo
Jesus Alvelo

It’s crunch time for Jesus Alvelo.

As in number-crunching. The microbiologist and AAAS Science and Technology Policy fellow is now learning data analytics at the National Science Foundation, where his work helps the agency manage the roughly $7 billion it distributes in research funds every year.

Alvelo works in the NSF’s Division of Engineering Education and Centers, which supports teaching and research. The analyses he’s producing help guide that division’s funding decisions.

“Although my training is in microbiology, I spent a lot of time during my Ph.D. track collaborating with engineers,” he said. “In my time as a post-doc at MIT, I was the only biologist in the research group – everybody else was an engineer, a physicist or a mathematician … I understand the perspective from the engineers, and they understand my perspective as a microbiologist.”

Alvelo is one of 281 S&T policy fellows working in Washington as part of the 2017-18 class, with a new wave coming in soon. He’s also one of 27 posted to the NSF. Before his current fellowship, he also took part in the association’s Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) workshop, which introduces graduate students to the policy world, in 2014.

He was drawn to microbiology as an undergraduate at the University of Puerto Rico after taking an introductory course on the subject.

“I got excited about how interesting it was and all the cool things you could do with bacteria,” he said. That led to him to work on biofuels at the University of Massachusetts, where he got his Ph.D. while trying to find ways to use bacteria, rather than land- and energy-intensive crops, to produce fuels.

“We were trying to use alternative feedstocks that will not have a negative impact on agriculture or water consumption and will also produce clean fuel for the future,” he said.

Then as a post-doc at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he worked on a team trying to mathematically model the spread of a potential future epidemic. And at the same time, he got some hands-on experience in the policy field as a volunteer science adviser to a candidate for governor of Puerto Rico, where he grew up.

The candidate, David Bernier, was running in 2016, when the U.S. Caribbean territory became a front in the battle against the Zika virus. The microbe can cause fevers and rashes and damage the brains of unborn children. At MIT, Alvelo had been studying how bacteria and viruses spread and in different environments.

“We were trying to explain what made that spread more dangerous,” he said. “Was it the temperature? Was it the wind? We had a chamber that we built and we were measuring conditions similar to hospitals, similar to tropical countries, to temperate countries and open situations.”

As Bernier’s science adviser, Alvelo questioned health officials’ estimates that up to 25 percent of the island’s population could become infected and argued against aerial spraying of pesticide to kill the mosquitoes that spread the virus. Alvelo was offering this advice while still at MIT, capping a long day in the lab by reading several papers on the virus and making calls to the candidate at night.

Under pressure from Puerto Rican officials, including Bernier, the Centers for Disease Control eventually gave up plans for aerial spraying. Although his candidate’s run was unsuccessful, “I felt very happy that I was able to be part of that,” Alvelo said.

The following year, just as he was starting his fellowship, Hurricane Maria slammed into the island. He spent three weeks after the storm helping his parents rebuild. His bosses at NSF were “very understanding,” and he used the opportunity check in unofficially on an NSF partner facility that was flooded during the storm.  His family escaped major losses, but the territory as a whole has struggled to recover. It took months for power to be restored to all of the island’s 3 million-plus people, and authorities recently estimated the death toll from the hurricane and the complications that followed at nearly 3,000 people.

Alvelo’s father is a doctor, and his mother is a medical technician. While he grew up exposed to science as a result, “They both come from humble beginnings and very poor families. That has given me a perspective of appreciating life in the simplest way and approaching life one step at a time.” And eventually, he wants to put the skills, contacts and knowledge he’s developing through the fellowship to work back home.

“I’m here to learn and contribute to the United States and give back to people of United States, who kindly gave me the funding I got for my research,” he said. “But I would eventually like to give back to my people and give back to Puerto Rico as well. I believe Puerto Rico has a lot to offer in the science field.”

The next round of applications for S&T policy fellowships are due Nov. 1. Alvelo said he’d urge anyone interested to get a head start by trying to engage the public on scientific issues, even if it’s as simple as writing a letter to the editor.

And he’d add one lesson he’s learned from his stint in Washington: “Shut up and listen.”

“We scientists do have a great ability to solve problems, but often times we don’t sit down and listen to try to understand a particular problem — people that need jobs, people who may have specific health care needs,” he said.

“The same thing applies in Washington. Every agency and every division has their own agenda and their own problems. Scientists have a great capacity to sit down and analyze and understand the problem and try to come up with solutions.”

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Matt Smith