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During Global Pandemic, AAAS’s Science & Technology Policy Fellowship Program Evolves

Olivia Monahan working virtually.

The novel coronavirus was just beginning to spread in the U.S., when the team that makes the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship (STPF) program began to realize that neither the fellows presently serving, nor the cohort that would be finalized this spring, were going to have the same extraordinary experience they expected; this year would look very different.

"I can clearly remember the moment when I saw the decision down the line," says Olivia Monahan, STPF Project Director. She'd been working for months on plans to bring the finalists for next year's program to Washington, D.C. for a last round of interviews. It was a Friday afternoon in February, she was on the Metro home, and she'd been reading the news. "I thought, if this was coming, we probably shouldn't fly them into D.C. It was a moment of clarity and panic at the same time." 

Since then, the entire world has pivoted toward seclusion in hopes of bringing the pandemic to an end, and the STPF program is no different. Most of the 270 present fellows, many who moved to the Washington, D.C. area to begin their one-year assignments on September 1, 2019, are now working virtually from those temporary homes, said Jennifer Pearl, STPF Director. Only a few continue to go into their offices because their work is deemed essential or requires secure facilities.

Still, the work of the STPF program continues to evolve in positive ways, even in difficult times. Some of the present cohort are doing COVID-related work; others are bringing their scientific and technical expertise to bear on climate projects, national security, education, government, international development and science diplomacy, says Pearl, who herself was a 2002-03 Executive Branch Fellow.

Pearl has been sending an email to the present fellows every week—not her usual practice—"to tell them we're thinking of them, to help keep their spirits up, to let them know about resources available to them, to call out fellows doing especially good work," she says.

Present fellow Ilana Goldberg, a mid-career chemist, is working as a Program Director at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) in Bethesda, Maryland, specializing in biophotonics. She reviews grant applications for small businesses and entrepreneurs. When the NIH moved online mid-March, Goldberg began working out of her Rockville, Maryland home. She has applied and has been accepted to serve a consecutive STP Fellowship next year at her present posting, she says. This is quite common, according to Monahan, who says most fellows renew for a second year in the fellowship.

Even with the disruptions the pandemic created, Goldberg says the experience has been amazing. "I'm absolutely glad I did this (fellowship). I was working as a government contractor, one step removed, and I wanted to understand how the government works, how they make their decisions. There is no way I could have learned this other than to be in the middle of it,” she says.

Even as present fellows adjusted to what Pearl's team calls "the new normal," the program was looking to the future, introducing next year's finalists who will join the program in the fall. Concurrently, staffers were planning to reach out to scientists at conferences and other gatherings across the nation as part of the annual recruiting operations. Now, none of this travel will be possible, so they have turned to more robust and frequent online outreach and engagement activities.

Traditionally, for finalists, interview week "is really special," a whirlwind tour of the seats of government and agencies where fellows are assigned, meeting the AAAS team at the society's headquarters, all in all "a huge professional development experience," Pearl says. "To have to take that away is kind of a terrible thing."

But to bring a new cohort on, everyone stayed home and conducted the business of the April interview week online. Current fellows helped out, meeting finalists for virtual lunches and happy hours to share their experiences with the program.

"We have never done anything like this before, virtual interviewing for finalists. It had never even been put on the table," Pearl says. But now, with official stay-at-home orders in place, "it wouldn't make any difference if they were here in D.C. We're all in the same boat. We're touching base through whatever tech platform works best for the situation."

For Eric Albers, Associate Program Director, who oversees operations, systems and data, and helps set the strategic course for STPF program, the decision to take the D.C. interview week online was an easy one, if somewhat daunting at first. "When you weigh the risks of making the wrong decision, the catastrophic fail in this scenario is so extreme you want to automatically err on the side of caution," says Albers. Pearl agrees; the safety of the prospective fellows had to come first. "Making the call early also helped."

Monahan says she was impressed that everyone agreed on the most important thing: "You can only approach this from the human side," she says. "It helps that, as an organization, AAAS is leading with people first."

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Delia O'Hara