Some of life’s most memorable lessons are learned outside the classroom – and for academics who have served as fellows in the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships (STPF) program, they found that those outside experiences made their research and teaching more dynamic and relevant.
Though arranging time away from their university posts can be a challenge for career academics—not to mention the accompanying lag in research, writing and publishing, the standard by which many in higher education are judged—the effort is well worth it, said Brent McCusker, a professor of geography at West Virginia University. Whereas most fellows serve for one year or two years consecutively, McCusker spent one yearlong sabbatical with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) Office of Science and Technology in 2011-12, and later returned to the USAID Center for Digital Development on a second sabbatical in 2018-19.
After working on a joint USAID-NASA project to deliver climate change information to decisionmakers in developing countries, McCusker said he was motivated to apply for a second term because he realized just how powerful it was to be able to bring real-world applied policy lessons back to the classroom for his students. His second year took him abroad seven times to support development program teams in several African nations. As the teams identified priority areas to work on, McCusker would help match them to—and navigate through—datasets in land use, standards of living, livelihood surveys, drought, food security.
“I was better able to understand how to make what we’re doing in academia relevant to policy—in real, concrete ways, at the operational levels,” McCusker said. “My department saw the feedback to my research and to the students. It was a fundamental shift.”
Vandana Janeja, a 2017-18 Executive Branch Fellow in the Directorate of Computer Information Systems and Engineering (CISE) at the National Science Foundation, had recently been promoted to associate professor in the Information Systems department at University of Maryland Baltimore County, and was looking for ideas to reignite her excitement about data science and cybersecurity. As a mid-career professional, she said she wanted to move away from the small, incremental steps that accumulate into impact over the course of a career.
“I thought, what if I was able to be at an agency that does take those big steps?” Janeja said.
The fellowship helped set her on an entirely new professional trajectory. With years of experience already under her belt, her team at CISE welcomed her as a colleague, and immediately set her on large projects, bolstering her leadership skills as she learned to support large solicitations and workshops in data science from start to finish.
Back at UMBC, after her fellowship, she immediately went up for full professor, and then applied to become chair of her department—and because of her time as a fellow, was able to see how her focused research questions could better fit into the larger framework of data science research and in responding to funding solicitations.
“The fellowship certainly helped me support my colleagues here think through how they are evolving through their research,” Janeja said. “And now, in a leadership position, I’m also able to help them think about big, transformative ideas. At the same time, my time as a fellow helped me see how projects are selected for funding. I understand the real intent behind what the solicitations are trying to achieve.”
Currently midway through his year as a fellow in the Department of Energy (DOE) Water Power Technologies Office, Ramesh Talreja said he actually shelved his application in the middle of preparing it, but was convinced to follow through after an alumnus fellow reached out.
“I found that the vast majority of previous fellows were early to mid-career researchers—but mostly early,” Talreja said.
Talreja, a professor of engineering with a specialty in composite materials and how they fatigue and fail, earned his Ph.D. in 1974 from the Technical University of Denmark. Currently on the faculty of the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M University, Talreja said he expressed doubts that he would be a good addition to the STPF program since he had no intentions to permanently transition into government.
“The gentleman who contacted me told me, ‘That’s not true—we desperately need people with your background, who can come into government offices and provide insight based on a deep expertise,’” Talreja recalled. “So I moved forward with it.”
At DOE, Talreja has been drawing on his decades-deep knowledge of composite materials and how they’re manufactured to advise a staff of
primarily non-technical program managers. The goal: to accelerate development of water-powered energy technologies, which lag far behind generation technologies for solar and wind.
“They’d been looking for someone who can provide guidance as to what materials to go for, since it’s still such an evolving area,” Talreja said. “Wind and solar, they’ve already gone through lots of trial and error. But for water, there are many options for materials, and the manufacturing process and performance of each material is very specialized.”
Thinking about what he may carry back to academia at the conclusion of the fellowship, Talrejadivulged it was a topic often on his mind. He said he already has plans to give talks for colleagues related to budgets, based on his insights into how renewable research programs are presented, selected and ultimately funded.
“And, it would be worthwhile to have a mechanism that allowed universities to place faculty with government offices for short periods of time,” Talreja said. “Government agencies can benefit from our expertise, and academics can better understand how taxpayer dollars flow into university research budgets. It’s of mutual benefit.”
McCusker noted that such experiences stand to make all academics and their research far more relevant.
“From my view, if we don’t do things like this, we shoot ourselves in the foot,” McCusker said. “It could be a transformative moment for academia if they take it up, and for anyone who is working on making their research more policy-relevant.”
“It transformed everything that I thought of afterward,” added Janeja. “You have to have humility at a certain stage in academia to go in and do what you need to do. Take your humility, keep an open mind—and try it.”