Advocating for change in science
In his job at a pharmaceutical firm, Daniel Wilson works on using adenoviruses and adeno-associated viruses to deliver gene therapies. On weekends, he crafts episodes of “Debunk the Funk with Dr. Wilson,” a YouTube series aimed at refuting myths about vaccines.
For his series, Wilson draws on his experience in the first Advocacy Training Program in 2018. The ATP, an externship of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, educates participants about government and public affairs and offers guidance on persuasive writing and speaking. The program engages young scientists in advocacy to drive positive change in science policy.
Wilson’s videos offer fact-packed slide talks and interviews to quash public health myths. Recent episodes touch on such claims as DNA contamination of mRNA vaccines and childhood vaccine links to autism.
“Your work has been a port in the storm of misinformation,” a fan named David wrote on the site.
Wilson began his show in 2020, inspired in part by his past internet forays. In his early teens, he drifted online, drawn by claims of 9/11 plots and pseudoscience, “sucked into misinformation and conspiracy theories,” he said.
High school and college biology teachers gave him a fresh frame of reference. “I discovered how incredible the scientific community is and how powerful the scientific method can be,” Wilson said.
He decided the internet could be a tool for changing minds. “Debunk the Funk,” which has some 32,000 subscribers, became his fulcrum for change.
“I try to use what I learned in the ATP to deliver a concise and effective message,” Wilson said.
For the ASBMB public affairs staff who oversee the ATP, the program dovetails with their strategic goals of engagement and partnerships.
“We see that as part of our responsibility to our members,” said Sarina Neote, director of public affairs. “Scientists can be a force for change within their states and local communities.”
Zarina Akbary, an alumna of the 2019 cohort, admits she once found advocacy intimidating. Now a Ph.D. candidate in biology at New York University, Akbary was an undergraduate when she was in ATP, surrounded by grad students. “I was a baby in the group,” she said.
She compares ATP’s effect on her advocacy skills to the energy that kick-starts a biochemical reaction.
“It really lowers the activation energy for doing advocacy,” Akbary said. “It reduces the barriers to making an impact.”
Building on skills, experience
Scientists bring special strengths to advocacy, observes Raechel McKinley, ASBMB science policy manager, and an ATP coordinator for the past two years.
“The fact that they’re all data driven, making sure that all their points are backed by evidence … that’s one of the strengths that scientists bring to the policy space,” McKinley said.
The ATP builds on participants’ knowledge and experience. Through online lectures, breakout discussion groups and individual projects, they gain information and basic skills for driving change.
Trainees learn about the federal agencies that fund research and the federal policies that govern it, the congressional budget process and policy at the state level. Program organizers strengthened this portion of the ATP for the 2023 session.
“We made a big effort to add more material, so that people have a common understanding of U.S. government policy and politics,” Neote said.
Bailey Weatherbee liked the way her 2018 ATP training parsed the process for research grants from federal sources such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
“It's easy to talk about all the things that you want to change,” Weatherbee said. “It's more difficult to know where you go to do that.”
ATP folds in practical assignments such as crafting a succinct research description, or “elevator pitch,” and a publishable op-ed.
For the trainees, the biggest challenge is often finding the right tools to realize the policy changes they seek, McKinley said. She uses words like “attainable” and “sustainable” to describe the optimal projects.
“We want all of the delegates to get something tangible out of this,” McKinley said. “In a sense, we have to help them find the right scale for change.”
Dan Pham, a former ASBMB science policy manager, helped launch the program in 2018. The ATP’s founders called its trainees “delegates” to signal the importance of their role in promoting science on federal, state and local stages.
“We wanted to convey to participants that they were more than interns,” said Pham, now a director at the Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy, “that they were representing something — firstly ASBMB but also their ideas and needs.”
Simplifying the science message
Biochemistry students are trained to convey complexity, but effective advocacy calls for the opposite mindset, ATP leaders and alumni say. Pham touts the practical value of a succinct message.
“For politicians, currency is time: If you have 30 seconds in the elevator, you have to get to the point,” he said. “We’ve been trained to do the exact opposite.”
Weatherbee worked with Pham as a delegate. Five years after ATP, she remains committed to raising her voice for science.
“It's so important for scientists to be advocates because we tend to historically silo ourselves away from the rest of society in a way that I think has been damaging,” she said. “I think we're seeing that in the spread of misinformation now, in the response to vaccinations and COVID-19.”
She credits ATP with helping her hone her communication skills for public debates on science-linked issues.
“When it comes to advocacy, you cannot be wishy-washy,” Weatherbee said. “You have to be very strong in your positions … and I think a lot of times, scientists are nervous to be definitive in their positions, because we are trained not to be.”
Weatherbee views the ATP as a singular opportunity.
“There are not a lot of programs out there to give scientists the skills to engage effectively,” she said. “The ATP is one of the first and remains one of the only ones that prioritize that.”
Marvin “Cortez” Bowlin is a University of Alabama grad student and a 2022 ATP delegate. Five years earlier, he had helped organize a nonpartisan March for Science in Birmingham — a chance to practice advocacy with municipal leaders.
Bowlin said the ATP taught him better ways to approach power brokers.
“The first was to be more diplomatic,” he said. “Don't just lay the sins of the world at someone's feet and say, ‘This is your problem, pick it up and deal with it.’”
ATP leaders coached him to offer solutions, he said. “Instead of just pointing out a problem, tell them, ‘I’ve already done a little bit of legwork; here’s an option you can take.’”
Nudging the sciences toward reform
In spring 2022, postdoctoral researcher Lien Nguyen first dipped her toes into advocacy. Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where she works, is affiliated with Harvard Medical School.
Nguyen had recently become co-chair of the advocacy committee for her hospital’s postdoctoral fellows association, and she found her ATP project close at hand.
She and other association leaders learned that Harvard was giving its postdocs a raise of $10,000 at a time when postdocs at her hospital received salaries that started at about $55,000 and were 6% to 10.4% less than those at Harvard.
Nguyen turned to the skills she had learned in her graduate training.
“As a scientist, I love data,” she said. “We decided to collect data from the postdoc community.”
The committee surveyed the hospital’s 800 postdocs, drawing 300 responses.
“The first and foremost concern was salary,” she said. “Almost all respondents said salary was a huge problem for them because of the high cost of living and the fact that other institutions were raising salaries.”
Nguyen doubted that she and her allies could increase pay for postdocs, who represented a small fraction of some 21,000 employees in the hospital system. Yet, she said her advocacy training proved useful in framing the issues to sway those in power.
“We learned about the policy makers and stakeholders — and how to craft a message that will be convincing to them,” Nguyen recalled of her ATP sessions.
In June, after a year of advocacy and negotiations, the postdocs won a substantial raise and mandated performance reviews to help them with career planning and professional development. By October 2024, a postdoc at BWH will make a minimum of $68,000.
“The hospital has been listening and has been very cooperative,” Nguyen said. “I can actually make a difference, I’ve learned from the past year.”
As for Bowlin, he and his fellow biomedical grad students advocated for the University of Alabama to raise their annual stipends of $30,000 or less — well below the cost of living in Birmingham. They formed a student advocacy board in the spring of 2022. By October, their paychecks reflected the change they helped bring about: a raise of $3,000, the first salary increase in three years.
“I don’t care what your background is; the ATP has something for you to learn,” Bowlin said. “There is a support system that you will find that will reach far beyond what you would normally expect to find in a free program.”
Sometimes, advocacy takes the shape of the written word. For Roxanne Evande, a 2022 ATP paper on NSF research funding decisions became an article in SciTech Forefront in June 2023.
Evande argued that some traditional criteria for proposals are ripe for change. Applicants may not have extensive research experience because they were working their way through school, for instance.
“As a federally funded agency, the NSF should be implementing measures to ensure equity in its fellowship awards,” Evande wrote.
Finding the right tools for change
In science as in advocacy, Chelsea Rand–Fleming, a 2022 ATP alumna, is drawn to pathways.
As Rand–Fleming wraps up a Ph.D. at Auburn University, she is studying methyl-coenzyme M reductase, an enzyme involved in the final step for forming methane and in the first step in oxidizing this greenhouse gas.
“If we can figure out all the ins and outs of this enzyme, then maybe, instead of producing methane, we can use this process … to actually consume methane,” she said.
Her ATP project explored a pathway leading from education to employment. Rand–Fleming comes from a family of veterans, including both parents and her husband. Despite their skills and experience, many vets struggle to find jobs as civilians.
With that in mind, Rand–Fleming worked with leaders at Auburn to start a regional pipeline linking students who are U.S. veterans to jobs in science, technology, engineering and medicine.
“I realize how few scientists actually look like me or come from backgrounds like me,” she said. “I just want to be somebody who helps somebody else's steps align so that they can actually get to this point as well.”
She documented her project in a study published in the Journal of Science Policy and Governance. “It was actually my first publication ever,” Rand–Fleming said, “so that was very rewarding.”
Pursuing change, reshaping careers
For some delegates, the ATP has fueled dreams of a career in public policy or rerouted their professional path.
“I had never thought about the fact that I could be an advocate as a career until I did the Advocacy Training Program,” said Shannon Kozlovich, a veteran of the 2018 cohort.
Kozlovich entered community college at 28, as a single mother, with an eye on nursing. A professor who saw her talent urged her to pursue research.
Chemical chirality (handedness) riveted Kozlovich. She earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Whitworth University and a Ph.D. in pharmacological science at Washington State University. Her doctoral thesis on a chiral carcinogen linked to tobacco propelled her into the world of antitobacco public health advocacy.
Today, Kozlovich works two jobs that add up to a full-time career in public policy. At the Cedars–Sinai Cancer Research Center for Health Equity, she’s a project director and scientist. She directs a grant aimed at reducing tobacco-linked health disparities among LGBTQIA+ Californians.
Kozlovich is also the founder and CEO of a consulting firm that works to improve LGBTQIA+ health equity by reducing the burden of tobacco-related disease. She’s a lifelong activist and reports that ATP still informs her work.
“For anyone who's even remotely interested in biochemistry, or molecular biology, I always tell them to get involved with ASBMB as early as possible,” Kozlovich said, “because the organization not only has the Advocacy Training Program, but it has so many resources for networking.”
Justin Wang, a grad student at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California, was mulling career options when he joined this year’s ATP.
“Now that I'm wrapping up my Ph.D. and thinking about the next steps, I came across science policy as a potential option for a career,” he said. “The program itself is fantastic in giving people the knowledge and skills to tackle the issues they are passionate about.”
Lien Nguyen’s work with the hospital postdoctoral association raised her awareness of workplace justice.
“There is an enormous power imbalance between PIs and postdocs,” she said. “Sometimes there are harassment issues, which have a huge impact on the people who are experiencing or witnessing these behaviors.”
She is also thinking more broadly about other issues, including the high cost of life-saving drugs such as the monoclonal antibodies used to treat asthma, arthritis, breast cancer and macular degeneration.
“If the public pays for the research that brings about those treatments, why should the medications be so expensive?” Nguyen asked.
Emerging leaders in science advocacy
When Wang isn’t documenting functions of transfer RNA synthetase — an enzyme that loads amino acids onto its nucleic acid target — he is pondering the psychological impact of high-stakes research. A career in research rides on uncertain laboratory outcomes, and some grad students, Wang believes, collect unmanageable stress along with their data.
“This hyper-competitive environment might be very beneficial for pushing innovation, but it also puts a lot of pressure on the people involved,” he said. “Some people are able to do very well and thrive, but others fall behind, and it can be pretty rough.”
As part of his ATP project, Wang organized a campus town hall on student well-being and mental health. In conjunction with the event, he developed a survey of graduate students, adapting resources from other institutions.
Wang hopes the survey data will help guide institutional leaders to shape programs in mentorship, community building or access to mental health care that will help address the problems he’s seen on campus.
“As I finish up, I want to leave behind structures that can carry on this work long after I’m gone, so that students can continue to benefit from a focus on mental health and well-being,” Wang wrote in an email.
He based his ATP project at his own institution, but Wang now has a more ambitious vision of advocacy and what he might accomplish.
“I've never, in my life considered reaching out to, say, a congressperson or somebody at the federal level of government and just asking them directly for more money for this program,” Wang said. “The ATP really gave me the confidence to start thinking that it's very possible to do these things: Even as an individual, you can try to make these bigger moves.”
In the years ahead, the ASBMB may look to program alumni to act as allies in debates over the public role of science. At the local level, ATP trainees can step forward and speak out on emerging policy issues. And on the national stage, they are poised to join an older generation of science advocates in debates yet to come.
Former ASBMB science policy manager Mallory Smith believes the ATP is creating a community of advocates. “We have an army of people trained in advocacy that are ready to speak up,” she said.
Dan Pham believes the stakes are more than academic. Public health may depend on trained experts who can step up with data when false claims, like those debunked on Wilson’s show, jam the internet.
“As we’ve learned through COVID-19, there’s a huge realization that misconceptions in science can lead to death,” Pham said. “It’s up to scientists to stand behind the data and scientific process.”The ASBMB’s public policy team, Sarina Neote, director of public affairs, and Raechel McKinley, science policy manager, along with former public affairs manager Dan Pham and former science policy manager Mallory Smith contributed their expertise to this story.
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