2001-02 NSF Fellow at the National Science Foundation
Andrea received a PhD in environmental sciences and engineering from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and currently is an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
I plunged into the waters of legislative and public affairs, and out of the mainstream of my academic career, when I took a sabbatical from my job as a professor of environmental engineering and spent a year at the National Science Foundation (NSF). I was looking for new challenges, new perspectives, and new opportunities so I applied for and was awarded an AAAS/NSF Science and Engineering Fellowship in Washington, DC. Although I felt like a fish out of water when I started my year in NSF’s Office of Public and Legislative Affairs, I eventually gained a wealth of knowledge in science writing for the public from my new colleagues, who had backgrounds in policy and communications.
Many of the challenges I encountered were overcome by a change in mindset. For example, when a project came up for which I stated: “These data would make a great table!” my policy and public affairs office mates told me that “There are no great tables – we think and write in paragraphs!” Although I was shocked at first, I came to accept that there was a whole segment of the population who really wanted more than just “show me the data.”
My training as an educator and researcher had prepared me for science writing for other professionals, but not for the layperson. For my technical writing, I supported tables, graphs, figures, and schematics with text. For my writing to the public, I needed themes, metaphors, active verbs, vivid nouns—and only the occasional support of the visual image. Story-telling was highly desirable; unexplained nomenclature or jargon was unacceptable. I researched and wrote on diverse topics from education reform to nanotechnology and successfully crafted speeches, press releases, policy documents, and reviews of congressional hearings. It was rewarding to see and hear my words and opinions shaping the worlds of others.
The AAAS fellowship not only opened career opportunities, but it also encouraged personal growth. My life in Washington, DC abounded with lectures, music, art, museums, monuments, food—I took in as much as I could, by myself, with my family, or with the Fellows. Fellows are invited to embassies, special events on Capitol Hill, unique receptions and lectures. I often assess my fellowship as being similar to a large professional meeting with too many concurrent sessions! This immersion in culture enlightened me to connections between science and engineering, everyday living and technology, research and development. As one can observe in exhibits at the Smithsonian, at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, or evenings at the Wolf Trap theater, innovations in electronics were driven by and continue to drive innovations in music. I felt invigorated to step away from the day-to-day responsibilities of the university and lab to see a broader picture of how science and engineering feed the economy, and shape the nation.
When I completed my swim through the AAAS/NSF Science and Engineering Fellowship, I landed back on the shores of academe with a new communications style, and with insights into government and policy to incorporate into my teaching and research. I am pleased to have taken the dive that gave me a rewarding sabbatical year in our nation’s capital.