November 2009

From the Bench to the Capitol


Allen Dodson was the 2008-2009 ASBMB science policy fellow. He received a B.S. in molecular, cellular and developmental biology from Yale University in 2002, doing his senior thesis with Sidney Altman. He completed his doctoral dissertation research in 2008 in the laboratory of Donald Coen at Harvard Medical School’s department of biological chemistry and molecular biology.

As a ninth-grade biology student, I learned that scientists were trying to harness viruses to deliver corrected genes to the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients. The ingenuity of this approach captured my imagination. Genetics had identified the cause of the disease, but human hands had not yet devised the tools to correct the flaw in a living, breathing patient. In contrast, cold viruses had evolved over the course of centuries to deliver genes to human lung cells. The potential of biology to solve this intractable problem was appealing on an intellectual level.

When I first read through the course catalog at Yale University, two listings stood out. One offering, a graduate-level elective titled “Molecular Genetics of Prokaryotes,” started with the most fundamental levels of gene expression and then built the skills and knowledge needed to understand and design such clever approaches to problems. The other, a two-semester course on constitutional law, offered an equally fundamental view of the law that shapes our society — the context in which our problem-solving efforts take place.

As an undergraduate, I did not have to choose; I could take a break from my senior thesis research in molecular, cellular and developmental biology to participate in debates on the floor of the Yale Political Union. I ultimately decided to pursue graduate school, reasoning that a specialized knowledge of biology would serve me well regardless of where I went afterward.

Communicating and Advocating Science

Shortly after I started at Harvard University, I joined a graduate student group called Science in the News, whose mission was to bring a greater understanding of science to the public. Through SITN, I presented seminars on topics like therapeutic cloning, avian influenza and the cervical cancer vaccine. I enjoyed learning about different topics in science and explaining them to nontechnical audiences.

During my second year of grad school, I began my dissertation research on antiviral drug screening against the herpes simplex virus. The work appealed to me because it drew on some of the same types of ingenuity that prompted researchers to use viruses for gene therapy. At the same time, I found that I enjoyed learning about, evaluating and communicating science more than I enjoyed performing it at the bench.

As I neared graduation, my adviser pointed me toward the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s science policy fellowship. I applied, was accepted and started in ASBMB’s public affairs office in the fall of 2008. During my first week on the job, we traveled to the Rayburn House Office Building to see National Institutes of Health Director Elias Zerhouni testifying to the House on NIH’s progress. On our way out, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice passed us in the halls on her way to a hearing on Russia. It was a pretty dramatic change from the daily routine of research.

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