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.

Most of my lessons from my time at ASBMB are more mundane. I spent a lot of time reading about budget processes and regulatory proposals. Writing nontechnical information, with space at a premium, on a daily basis greatly has improved the quality of my writing. I also had the opportunity to benefit from the expertise of Peter Farnham, the members of ASBMB’s Public Affairs Advisory Committee and our collaborators at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

"Most researchers know where to find the path from graduate school to an academic postdoc or a position in industry."

Most of all, I have enjoyed bringing members of ASBMB to the Hill. As a policy staff member, I was in the unique position of being an ambassador between our member scientists, who know technical information but are not as familiar with Congress, and congressional staff, who generally do not have a technical background. I always have been struck by our members’ enthusiasm and willingness to participate, and it was very rewarding to know that I had helped them get their messages across.

Early Career Insights

Every month or so, I receive an e-mail from someone looking for career advice.

Most researchers know where to find the path from graduate school to an academic postdoc or a position in industry. The path away from the bench seems murky by comparison. Job announcements request years of experience, and many of the scientists who have successfully made the jump to policy did so with the help of a highly competitive fellowship (such as ASBMB’s). The first position beyond the bench — that key credential that establishes one’s ability to succeed at something other than experimental science — can prove highly elusive.

I can’t claim to solve this problem, but perhaps I can offer some advice on how to look for the solutions.

Places to Go, Things to Do

The science policy field encompasses a wide variety of activities. Knowing which ones interest you will influence what types of jobs you pursue.

Advocacy organizations like ASBMB work to influence policy: budgets, regulations and all of the other news we cover in this magazine. The policymakers in Congress and relevant agencies are the most prominent audience for this sort of work, but they are not the only audience; communicating directly with the people you represent is equally important. The ASBMB Hill Day covered in this issue was possible only because of the efforts of society members in each of the target districts who responded to my requests for students and postdocs who would make excellent ambassadors for science.

The other major direction is implementing policy at government agencies. Scientific expertise is needed to interpret existing regulations and determine how they apply to specific situations. The goal is to ensure that existing policies are carried out — hopefully with an eye toward helping people comply with the regulations.

Skills You Didn’t Know You Had

Ever since leaving the bench, I have learned that a lot of the skills I used in research are also applicable to other jobs.

Communication, whether by reading, writing or giving presentations, is crucial. In general, you will need to present concise, nontechnical information, in contrast with the highly technical experimental details of your scientific research. If you do not enjoy reading and writing, whether it is policy news, regulatory submissions or legislative language, this will affect what types of jobs you will want. Research presentations, participation in student/postdoc government or articles for your institution’s student newspaper can help polish your skills even as your daily focus remains on bench work.

Your research career also builds qualities that employers will be looking for. You have independence and drive, with the Ph.D. and/or publications to prove your ability to complete a project. You have analytical skills, which work on qualitative questions of policies and budgets. You also have experience working in a group environment and in training your fellow researchers, both of which can play big roles in any number of careers beyond the bench.

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

Finally, as with bench research, your search will take patience and persistence. The harsh economy may seem to have made a tough job hunt even tougher, but the dedication that gets you through your research should be enough to handle one more challenge.

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