When Raleigh Martin, 2017-19 Executive Branch Fellow, visited the rugged landscape of California’s Owens Valley as a college freshman, it sparked his interest in learning about the processes that shape the Earth’s surface. Years later, Martin studied the movement of sediment in rivers and how atmospheric conditions affect the wind’s movement of sand and dust. He also became involved in a National Science Foundation (NSF) program called EarthCube to make geoscience data more available and integrable.
Martin decided to follow his interest in facilitating improvements for scientific research. He applied and became an AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow (STPF) placed at NSF. There, he continues to work on facilitating data accessibility in the geosciences and cyberinfrastructure, including the EarthCube project. He says that when researchers want to search a different research domain than they usually use, “it’s like you’re speaking a different language,” Martin said because the terms they use and the way the data are structured can be different.
The West also led Kirstin Neff to study water issues. Despite growing up in Arizona, she didn’t learn where her water came from until high school, and the fragility of the system made an impression. “The entire western United States is only possible—to have the amount of people living here that we do—because of the way we control rivers and use groundwater,” Neff said.
She eventually got a Ph.D. studying groundwater hydrology and followed with a post-doctoral project studying whether satellite measurements could be used to measure groundwater depletion. However, it required spending a lot of time in front of a computer processing data rather than being in the field or doing the environmental education she enjoyed, so she decided to follow her interest in policy.
Neff became a 2016-17 Congressional Science & Engineering Fellow sponsored by the Geological Society of America and joined Sen. Martin Heinrich’s (D-NM) “tight-knit” office to work on geology, space, science and technology issues. She enjoyed the social aspect of the work, which required taking many meetings and listening to people’s concerns. Now managing a program at the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, she helps allocate grants for Southwestern river habitat restoration and develop transactions to leave more water in rivers to benefit fish and wildlife.
“There’s really no way to understand how the federal government works except for doing it,” Neff said. “Because I handle so much federal money and implement federal priorities, that experience I had in D.C. of understating the relationship of Congress and the agencies is invaluable for what I do now.”
As a graduate student, hydrologist David Kahler focused on subsurface groundwater remediation as well as teaching elementary and undergraduate students. He became interested in international water challenges while teaching in India. “It was impossible for someone educated in water issues to miss the problems in the urban and rural areas,” Kahler said.
That experience inspired him to apply for an STPF fellowship, and he became a 2012-2014 fellow at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in the Office of Water. One of the projects he contributed to was the Grand Challenge for Development program “Securing Water for Food,” for which he helped evaluate some of the “interesting and creative” water-lifting technologies proposed to assist irrigation.
“I learned an unbelievable amount about how the U.S. government and USAID works, and about international development,” not just in his day-to-day job, but through STPF professional development events that gave him an opportunity to interact with people from other agencies, Kahler said.
Kahler is now an assistant professor in the Center for Environmental Research and Education at Duquesne University where he continues to have an international focus. His current research analyzes whether recently improved satellite data can be used to provide more reliable and cheaper measurements of water flows in the Limpopo River basin in Southern Africa, and help governments better manage the water and ecosystems.
These fellows have some advice for future STPF fellows. Kahler advises future fellows to figure out what they really want to focus on in order to find a good host office fit, and “treat everything as a learning experience.”
Raleigh Martin says future fellows may not have everything figured out at the start. “The fellowship gives you unique license to talk to people and learn about what they do in their programs and how everything fits together,” he said. He will become a learner once again when he begins a congressional fellowship this fall sponsored by the American Geosciences Institute.