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CASE Participant Reflects on Her Experience

Through all of undergraduate and the beginning of graduate school, I had no concept of how important the relationship between science and policy was. I assumed that it wasn’t worth my time to do any significant outreach to non-scientists because I was too busy, or they wouldn’t understand, or my grant is paying me to do research, or any one of several different excuses.

I started graduate school with every intention of going the full academic route, culminating in a distinguished career as a tenured professor at an R1 research institute. By the time I took my qualifying exam (QE), I had come to terms with the fact that a career as a tenured professor (distinguished or not) was not the right choice for me. I entered the all too common post-QE mid-PhD crisis, where you can see the end of the PhD struggle falling off into the black nothingness of ‘what in the world am I going to do with a PhD in X (that someone will pay me to do)’. This was a very stressful time for me, as it is for many graduate students facing similar mid-PhD crises. There was laughter, there were tears, and there may have been one too many trips to the bakery for delicious gourmet cupcakes. It was a painful experience, but it made me really sit down and reevaluate why I loved science, and how I wanted to share that love of science with other people. At the end of it I had a very clear idea of what I liked to do, the skills I wanted to use in a future career, and new jeans (because the cupcakes won).

As a result of many discussions as well as some self-exploration, I have started working towards a career in science policy. Scientists are part of society, and the concerns and problems that are prevalent in the general public are our problems and concerns as well. I believe that if we have skills or knowledge that can improve public policies and benefit the greater population, then we should be sharing them. Many people have heard of the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, a fantastic program in which fellows (who have completed their PhD or masters of engineering) are placed for a year with a host office where they use their scientific or engineering background to contribute to science and technology policy. While an amazing opportunity, it does pose a bit of a problem for people like me: what if I take the time to apply, get accepted, make the move to DC, and then realize this is really not the place for me? Where can I get a taste of what working in science policy is like without making a year-long commitment (and moving across the country)? Enter the AAAS Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) workshop.

The CASE workshop is a 3-day workshop held in Washington, DC for interested in science policy. The workshop includes seminars on topics such as the structure and function of Congress, the federal budget, and science communication, as well as the opportunity to visit the offices of Members of Congress, to discuss the importance of supporting scientific research

I have been to several conferences, but the CASE workshop was easily one of the most interesting and engaging that I have ever attended. In addition to learning more about fellowships and careers in science and technology policy, my fellow participants and I got the opportunity to meet and discuss these various opportunities with current employees and fellows who were able to give us a first-person account of their experiences. An important component of the workshop was presentations on different science and technology policy related issues from experts in the field. This was an invaluable learning experience, especially as the presentations provided the opportunity for us to ask questions and fully engage with the speakers. I learned a lot about the policy process and effective science communication, as well as a lot of new acronyms—some of which I actually remember.

I especially appreciated a couple of workshops on the Federal Budget process that were led by Matt Hourihan, Program Director, AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program. Matt covered both the complexity of the federal budget (including the difference between mandated and discretionary spending), in addition to taking us through an exercise in which we worked to balance a small part of the budget—to various levels of success. This experience was particularly noteworthy to me because it helped me appreciate the complexity of the federal budget process in a way I had not previously. I still want to see more funding directed towards research (and graduate student support), but now I feel better prepared to craft a reasonable request with a good chance of being well received by congressional offices.

By far, the most memorable session was a talk entitled ‘Congress: Its Structure and Processes’ presented by Judy Schneider, Specialist on the Congress, Government and Finance Division, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress. Judy is an incredibly dynamic speaker, and she sure knows her stuff. I think I may have learned an entire academic quarter’s worth of information in an hour and a half.

My experiences at CASE have helped solidify for me my choice to pursue a career in science and science education policy and advocacy. I am in the process of applying for policy related fellowships for PhDs. While I don’t know at the moment exactly what my future career will look like, I do know that whatever I do will be in support of science and science education policy. Thanks to the CASE workshop (as well as AAAS), I already have experience and contacts that will help me start my career successfully.