Science and Technology Policy Storytellers Take the Spotlight

From left, Amber Hewitt, Maryam Zaringhalam, Maynard Holliday, Dorothy Jones-Davis and Irina Pala told their stories at the 2017 Story Collider and Resource Fair. | Kat Song/AAAS

After a chemistry class made clear that no substance can dissolve a diamond, Irina Pala knew she had found a summer project.

Pala cobbled together a modest laboratory, including a Bunsen burner, a few test tubes and geodes — a difficult task in then-Communist Romania. Yet the project did not get off the ground after her first-ever grant application to the only funding agency she knew, her mother’s wallet, yielded no diamonds.

Pala’s love for science still persisted, even after she moved to America, worked as a house cleaner and truck driver and went on to earn degrees in chemistry.

Now a senior policy analyst at the Office of Naval Research, Pala shared her story at the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships’ Story Collider and Resource Fair, held at the American Association for the Advancement of Science headquarters on Oct. 11. Echoing her childhood passion, she recounted what she has come to appreciate most: the connections that she has made as a scientist.

“We are each very little exceptional atoms, but the bonds between us are what make us strong,” she said. “We are the diamonds.”

Pala, who served as an S&T Policy Fellow in the State Department from 2014 to 2016, was among five current fellows or alumni of the program who told stories about travel, family history, their identities as scientists and the connections they forged as S&T Policy Fellows, sharing the human side of science and science policy.

Jennifer Pearl, director of the S&T Policy Fellowship Program, said, “Tonight’s event gives us the opportunity to celebrate the diversity of the fellowship experience, the strength of its alumni, and the partnerships that have shaped the now 45-year history of the program,” which places doctoral scientists and engineers into federal government offices to gain firsthand experience with science policy and to share their scientific knowledge with policymakers.

Storytelling has been an annual tradition at the resource fair since 2013, when the program celebrated its 40th anniversary. This year, the stories were interspersed with opportunities for attendees to learn about the fellowship program, ask questions of the storytellers, network with other attendees and learn about other science policy organizations and programs.

Unscripted stories are “an incredible powerful way to package information,” said Liz Neeley, one of the evening’s hosts and executive director of the Story Collider, which presents stories about science at regular events in Washington, D.C., and around the country and via a weekly podcast.

Research has shown piling up more and more data does not change hearts and minds, Neeley added. Instead, as Gifford Wong, an S&T Policy fellow at the State Department and Neeley’s co-host, said, hearing a story “can really hit at more of a soulful experience than a cerebral experience.”

Take, for instance, Maynard Holliday, who shared his experience of finding an unexpected place for his skills as a roboticist: Ukraine, where in the mid-1990s he assisted the nation with its lingering recovery from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident.

“You have just presented me with the nail for my hammer,” said Holliday, who ultimately delivered a telerobotic mobile vehicle that could go under the reactor core and assess its radioactivity level.

In Ukraine, Holliday learned about the complexities of geopolitics while altering the path of his own career, which, in addition to his stint as an S&T Policy Fellow at the U.S. Agency for International Development in 1995 and 1996, led him to Silicon Valley’s robotics startup world, the Pentagon and the RAND Corp., where he currently works as a senior engineer.

Other storytellers shared experiences about stepping out of their comfort zones. For Dorothy Jones Davis that was the speech she agreed to deliver on the mainstage during the March for Science on April 22 on the Washington Mall.

“That was the shortest and longest two-and-a-half minutes of my entire life,” said Jones-Davis, an S&T Policy Fellow at the National Science Foundation from 2012 to 2014.

As she prepared to take the stage before thousands of scientists and science enthusiasts gathered for the March, she met several inspirational figures: a former mentor, a researcher she admired and fellow speaker Mari Copeny, a 9-year-old Michigan native who was named Little Miss Flint. Jones-Davis’ experiences at the March and the connections she forged have helped focus her advocacy work as executive director of Nation of Makers, a nonprofit devoted to supporting maker organizations.

"I honestly feel like we’re still marching on," she said.

Maryam Zaringhalam told the story of traveling to her parents’ native Iran in the wake of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, only to see on state-sponsored media the announcements of Trump’s executive order banning entry from Iran and six other countries.

Yet Zaringhalam, a current S&T Policy Fellow at the National Institutes of Health, also saw coverage of protests against the ban showing Americans holding signs at airports reading “No ban, no wall.”

Returning to the U.S., she committed herself to join the movement “not just to march for science or environmental justice or women’s rights, but to raise my voice as uniquely me, to articulate every part of who I am and why I matter, as a woman, a daughter of immigrants, a product of science without borders, as an Iranian, as an American, and as a scientist myself and as what, I can only hope, is everything my parents imagined when they dreamed their American dream.”

In her story, Amber Hewitt spoke about facing the fear of leaving a tenure-track job in psychology to become a S&T Policy Fellow and potentially letting down her students, particularly students of color.

Yet, as Hewitt recalled a mentor telling her, “There is more than one way to be a scholar.”

Last year, Hewitt was placed in the office of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker as an S&T Policy Fellow sponsored by the American Psychological Association. During the sit-in held on the Capitol steps by Booker and Rep. John Lewis of Georgia in support of health care as a civil right, Hewitt felt a deeper appreciation for her parents’ experiences and activism growing up in the South during the Civil Rights era.

“Standing in front of you today, I now recognize that that same courage, resilience and strength that lived within my parents and ancestors lives within me too. Now it’s my time to take up that torch and help bend that arc just a little bit more toward justice,” said Hewitt, finishing her story to cheers.