Rashada Alexander, Ph.D., took the reins of the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships (STPF) program at the end of July 2021 and is keenly aware of the crucial role scientists play in society. As the new program director, she is relishing the opportunity to support the program in its mission to build a network of scientists and engineers who can significantly contribute to policymaking. STPF places fellows in one-year assignments in the federal government to learn firsthand about policymaking and prepare them to become policy-savvy leaders in academia, government, nonprofits and industry.
“By placing STEM experts within federal agencies, the program plays a very clear role in terms of linking scientific evidence to policymaking,” explains Alexander. In other words, the benefit is mutual — federal agencies can take advantage of the scientists’ expertise, while simultaneously fellows learn the ins and outs of how government can effect changes to solve problems and improve people’s lives.
“One of the important aspects of this program that I think can often get lost is that the experience teaches fellows how to leverage scientific evidence and communicate it in a way that enables it to be practically integrated,” Alexander further elaborated.
Alexander’s responsibilities, as she sees them, are as follows: to integrate and optimize the lessons that have been learned in the program’s nearly 50 year-history; to continue the good work that’s been done to maintain the program (“to make sure the trains run on time,” as she puts it); and to forecast the next steps to take to position the program for future excellence.
Alexander herself is an alum of STPF and served as a health science policy analyst in the National Institute of Health’s Office of Extramural Research from 2009 to 2011. Thus, she is finely tuned to the rich resource that is the network of nearly 4,000 STPF alumni.
“One of my goals is to ensure that we are engaging with our alumni population as strongly as we can because those are a lot of folks who are on the ground doing that work day-to-day, and they also have an amazing level of expertise about what it looks like to effectively influence and implement policy at the federal level,” says Alexander. “We can tap them for insights, not just on the program but also science policy as a whole, operating in the federal sector, and how this program can continue to be a strong partner to the federal government and a valuable asset within AAAS.”
To that end, Alexander is planning a first-ever STPF alumni town hall. “Since this is the first one of its type, we’re hoping to learn whether this format is a good way to engage with alumni, and if alumni find them useful,” she explained. “My hope is that this event will be an opportunity for alumni to connect with me as both an alumna and the new director of the program. I’d like to start a bidirectional conversation about how STPF and AAAS can and should improve, maximize and support the STPF alumni network.”
As a trained scientist with a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Kentucky, Alexander has a specific set of skills that she believes will be helpful in her new role. For instance, she notes as director of STPF, she’ll have to strategize and consider how existing systems and resources can be harnessed and put together to optimize their effectiveness — similar to how a scientist may plan experiments. She’s also eager to listen to and learn from her staff, who she credits with having done a great job — another skill that’s likely also rooted in a scientist’s trained affinity for learning and discovery.
And finally, the ability to persist despite setbacks is another trait she identifies as one many scientists have to develop. “That professional resilience is a key part of how you succeed, and how you build a reputation and body of work that you can be proud of,” she says.
That dogged determination and faith in fundamentals of the scientific process is matched by her excitement about finding and fostering talent in unexpected spaces and passing that philosophy on to others. Growing up in rural Alabama, Alexander’s grandfather was a farmer who only had a 5th grade education. He was, however, one of the smartest people she’s ever known.
Alexander says there is the opportunity to raise awareness and pay respect to the fact that knowledge and wisdom can come from areas that are not purely academic in the traditional sense, and that equity and inclusion, which is something AAAS at large has paid attention to, is something that she can help foster.
“We have so many challenges, it makes no sense not to use every pathway to win, by ensuring that you have the most folks who potentially have the will and skill that you need, that they are coming to the table, and that you are not discounting them for whatever reason,” she says. “I’m looking forward to the ways that I can work with my colleagues and other folks within this organization to amplify that message and that work, so I’m excited — it’s a really cool time to be at AAAS.”