When Samantha Anderson transitioned her career from a focus on basic science to science policy, a lot of major curveballs were thrown her way. Through the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship program, she was placed in the Non-proliferation and Disarmament Fund (NDF) at the U.S. Department of State – coincidentally starting her placement just two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
“Although I was hired to do other work, it was an all-hands-on-deck situation,” recalls Anderson, noting she was suddenly immersed in efforts to help provide the Ukraine government with chemical, biological and radiological defensive assistance to aid with threat detection, personal protective equipment, mitigation measures and response measures.
It was quite a different career path than what she had been pursuing just a few years earlier. Anderson graduated from the University of Wisconsin Madison in 2019 with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, focusing on hydrogen bonding, membrane proteins, protein-protein interactions and big data analyses.
She notes that, while basic science is a critical part of the research and development life cycle, it can be a long process for those breakthroughs to be deployed in real-world settings.
“I felt that my personal fulfillment would be better served by moving into the policy space and working to make impacts today,” Anderson says. “At the State Department, I have seen that come to fruition by advising on providing life-saving equipment to Ukraine.”
To help the shift toward policy work, Anderson decided near the end of her graduate degree program to apply to be a Biophysical Society Science and Engineering Congressional Fellow. That brought her to Capitol Hill, where she served with two U.S Representatives – during both COVID-19 and the January 6 attack – before joining the NDF in March 2022.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Anderson feels her work demands a very a high tempo.
“We’re always resting right under the simmering point,” she says.
Despite this, Anderson finds her current job fulfilling and sees the value in policymakers and scientists working together to find solutions, especially in the field of non-proliferation. She emphasizes how important it is for people in her position to have a good understanding of the chemical, biological and nuclear technologies related to warfare in order to properly mitigate those threats.
While Anderson brings her scientific expertise to the table, she is constantly collaborating with other policymakers possessing a different arsenal of skills. Her advice in these working relationships is to recognize each others’ strengths.
“I think you need have humility when you work with people who are knowledgeable in their field but not necessarily yours,” she explains, referencing both scientists and policymakers. “It’s important to remember that you can't be an expert in all skills, in all [areas of expertise].”
Anderson says that, although the crisis in Ukraine is far from slowing down, she has recently been able to shift toward the focus of her original work through the program and her placement at the NDF: biosafety and biosecurity.
This month, she travelled to Cape Town, South Africa for a workshop hosted by the Department of State, where 23 experts in biosafety and biosecurity from 21 countries convened to discuss safe work practices in clinical and diagnostic laboratories. This meeting was the first of a six-part workshop series that focuses on different biosafety topics at each meeting, identifying gaps and priorities for each. The results will inform future research funding initiatives.
Anderson was also assigned to cover “Critical and Emerging Technologies” through her role at NDF, which means she has been working on an initiative to address safety and security concerns with AI, which resulted in three reports. These include a historical survey of disruptive technologies, a survey of the advanced AI landscape and an action plan to bolster AI safety and security. As a result of this initiative, NDF designed a new AI project that will support the Secretary of State's initiatives to bolster the Sustainable Development Goals by leveraging the power of AI to drive global good.
Anderson says she enjoys the mix of subjects and would like to continue with a breadth of topics moving forward. For others considering applying to the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship program, Anderson’s advice is to be receptive to where the experience may take you.
“Be really open-minded with the types of interviews you take and the types of places you could go, because scientific expertise is needed in a lot of parts of the government,” she says, adding that she is very happy with her career path and placement with the NDF, where her work has involved such important contributions in non-proliferation and other critical areas.
“I’m very happy with my choice and I’m grateful that [my work] has been so impactful,”