February 2011

Fellowships 101: policy opportunities for scientists


For those of you who crave a career outside of the lab, you are in luck – there are loads of fellowship opportunities for scientists who want to work in the policy realm. 

Whether pre- or post-doctoral degree, you can help translate science into policy for executive and legislative branch leaders. A policy fellowship provides you with the opportunity to communicate science to nonscientists, conceivably shaping legislation at the state or federal levels.

Life as a National Academies fellow

Applications are now being accepted for ASBMB's Science Policy Fellowship 

The fellowship offers recently graduated Ph.D.s exposure to a range of activities regarding science policy and congressional and government relations. Fellows work in the public affairs office of ASBMB’s headquarters just outside of Washington, D.C.

For more information, go to the ASBMB website.

I recently completed one of these fellowships: the Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship at the National Academies in Washington, D.C. The fellowship appealed to me, and likely to my 25 fellow fellows, because it’s a quick and dirty introduction to federal science policy in our nation’s capital.

The fellowship began with an intensive one-week orientation. Former fellows told us about their current positions in the departments of State, Energy, Agriculture and Defense; in the House and Senate science committees; and at think tanks or private firms. We also met the director of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, who works in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. A bowl of alphabet soup, anyone?

During orientation we delved into the workings of the National Academies (this includes engineering, medicine and science). The National Academy of Sciences was the first of the academies, chartered by President Abraham Lincoln as an independent organization to provide the nation’s leaders with scientifically sound advice. The twelve-week fellowship program places fellows in a variety of departments within the National Academies, from science education to astronomy to climate change.

My home department at the National Academy of Sciences was the Board on Army Science and Technology. Here, my doctorate degree in chemistry finally came in handy as I immersed myself in the U.S. Army’s chemical weapons disposal project. The U.S. has stockpiles of the blister agent mustard gas, several nerve agents and the arsenic-containing Lewisite left over from the cold war era and before. To increase our safety a few notches, the U.S. has ratified an international treaty to destroy all of these stockpiles. I learned this as I traveled to army bases, met with BAST committee members from academia and industry, and talked to experts about the army’s chemical demilitarization progress.

D.C. has a ready supply of governmental and nongovernmental policy organizations, so I met with program directors at the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the American Chemical Society, and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. On Capitol Hill, I observed House and Senate hearings on science policy from advancing STEM education to finding solutions for global warming. I attended lectures at think tanks like the Brookings Institution and the Potomac Institute, and I visited the Smithsonian museums carpeting the National Mall. The twelve weeks flew by, and after the fellowship ended, I took a Duke University job in science administration. My fellow fellows returned to academia to finish graduate school or begin professorships, entered or returned to the business world, went to teach high school, stayed at the National Academies, or started new jobs or fellowships in the policy world. The National Academies is one of the few places you can jump into policy before finishing your doctorate, but post-doctorate, you have your choice of opportunities.

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Thanks so much, it was very useful to know about those opportunities. Elsa Castillo





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