Fellows Make a Foray into the Judiciary

While more than three thousand AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows have brought scientific and engineering expertise to the legislative and executive branches of the federal government during the past four decades, only recently have some found a home in its third branch. The first STPF judicial fellow was a member of the class of 2014-2015.

Pate Skene, 2016-2017 Judicial Branch Fellow, is an associate research professor of neurobiology at Duke University, who fulfilled a long-held desire by completing a J.D. in 2014. During his fellowship, Skene studied the way courts decide on the scientific validity of scientific evidence, especially forensic evidence like fingerprints, ballistics and DNA evidence.

Skene said the fellowship was also a great opportunity to take his research in new directions. “I’m still focused on how people and animals make decisions. I’m trying to interpret that and see how it affects how we apply our laws.” For instance, he’s found that jurors feel a little more certain that someone is guilty when the charges against that person are more serious. Skene’s new research also uses brain imaging to see what’s going on in people’s brains when they make those decisions.

Part of what made the fellowship “fascinating,” Skene said, was the opportunity to work with legal and scientific experts at the Federal Judicial Center (FJC), where all judicial fellows are placed. The FJC is the research and education agency of the federal judicial branch charged with evaluating federal court practices and procedures to improve the way they apply the law. It also provides education and training for judges and court staff. “The people at the FJC are really good research lawyers, so it’s great to have their advice,” Skene said.

Applicants for a judicial branch fellowship must have at least three years of post-doctoral professional experience, and those with legal experience or a J.D. degree are preferred. Only one fellowship is available each year.

The 2017-2018 Judicial Branch Fellow, Andrea Gaede, is also a neuroscientist. Her research has focused on how human brains regulate blood pressure and breathing, and how birds’ brains process visual motion. However, while working on her Ph.D., Gaede also read and summarized biotechnology patents and litigation to assist a research professor who was writing a book. “I was one of those few people who found it not boring,” Gaede said. So, after completing post-doctoral research, she applied for the judicial fellowship for an opportunity to focus more on the intersection of law and neuroscience.

Gaede is developing an online interactive course for federal judges and court employees that will teach neuroscience basics as well as specific research related to scientific evidence that could be used in court. “My goal is to stay in this interdisciplinary space, and I think this fellowship will definitely help with that,” Gaede said.

The first-ever STPF Judicial Branch Fellow in 2014-15, Shubha Ghosh, has a Ph.D. in economics and a law degree. He completed his fellowship, which focused on improving patent laws, while on sabbatical from his position as director of the Technology Law Program and Crandall Melvin Professor of Law at the Syracuse University College of Law.

During a 2016 STPF video chat about the judicial fellows program, Ghosh said the experience had made him a stronger researcher and instructor, and made a good example for his students, whom he hopes will also do externships or fellowships in Washington. “It was really beneficial to get that perspective about law and about science from policymakers in D.C.,” he said.