Earlier this year, I spoke at the Life Sciences Career Day at my alma mater, University of Wisconsin-Madison. This was a homecoming of sorts for me as it was exactly 10 years ago that I was in the audience in that same building – a much older, shabbier version of it – listening to speakers about their non-academic careers. The career day I attended during my graduate school days really opened my eyes to the kinds of jobs scientists with PhDs could pursue. I heard speakers with successful careers in teaching, consulting, communications, research, marketing, and my favorite of all: science policy. The speaker from the National Academies struck a chord with me when she described her job, her day to day activities, and the reasons why she was so fulfilled. So, undoubtedly, I was delighted to be asked to participate in the Career Day; this time on the other side of the table, sharing my own career track with graduate students, and encouraging and inspiring them to consider a whole range of career possibilities. A PhD in the sciences affords you with numerous non-academic paths to travel that contribute to societal progress, not only tenure-track academic positions.
A basic requirement for being a good scientist is to have curiosity, loads of it, but also to channel this curiosity towards a defined problem. I was skilled in both aspects, and did well (based on an academic publishing measure) in both master’s as well as PhD research projects. I thoroughly enjoyed the challenges of rigorous coursework, failed lab experiments, critical committee meetings, and peer reviews, but midway through my PhD, I also started feeling the need to apply my scientific and technical aptitude more broadly and more directly in service of societal benefit and progress. I felt that with each experiment and lab meeting I was going further and further into a specialized and isolated corner where fewer and fewer people would understand what I was up to. Thankfully, the Life Science Career Day came about and helped me rethink and reshape the trajectory of my remaining graduate life. In addition to continuing my research work, I started taking courses in the law and policy schools. I started volunteering with the local chapter of the American Heart Association, a health advocacy group, and joined their advocacy efforts through two visits to congressional leaders in Washington, D.C. I started talking to non-scientists, non-faculty members—a practice not too widespread within academic circles. And finally, I starting applying to internships and fellowships that I could start right after graduation as a stepping stone to a career in science policy.
A short fellowship with a medical research advocacy organization, Research!America, introduced me to the world of advocacy and policy. This experience made for a relatively easy transition into a full time position working on research management and providing strategic guidance on scientific research, education, and diversity at the American Association of Advancement of Science (AAAS), one of the oldest scientific societies. After several years at AAAS, I was jazzed by the idea of facilitating the conception and launch of a brand new initiative, the Center for Science and Democracy (CSD), at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The move brought me to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the 45-year old organization is headquartered. And while leaving our nation’s capital physically moved me away from the heart of policy and politics, the job with the Center and UCS positioned me much closer with my original desire for aligning my scientific expertise with public policy.
My Two Roles:
A bit of a backdrop before we dive into the days: my job has two distinct components to it, which oscillate like a seesaw based on the priorities and deadlines of the day. As the Senior Analyst at the Center for Science and Democracy, I oversee our research portfolio, think about what would be critical topics and analyses for us to undertake, consider who we should be collaborating with on the topic, allocate resources and roll out our reports, message and target them to achieve desired goals. The analysis that the Center undertakes is often different from the rest of our organization. We often focus on exposing misinformation and actions undermining science and policy by vested parties, political and corporate. For this we scour dense documents—company filings, shareholder resolutions, freedom of information (FOIA) requests, news reports, lobbying expenditure, public statements, legal briefs, etc.—to review and assess how individuals, organizations, corporations, and our elected officials are treating and using or misusing science. We then use this rigorous analysis to challenge the offenders, and demand reform in their practices.
The other aspect of my work is done under the title of program manager, which means I work closely with our Center’s Director and leadership in setting the strategic direction of our overall work including analysis, communications, outreach, staffing, and stakeholder engagement. This requires both a high-level consideration of what alliances, approaches, and tactics would most advance our efforts as well as in the weeds tasks of annual planning, budgeting, and staffing.
Through the next few blogs, I hope to take you on a typical work week journey with me…stay tuned.