From Pipettes to Policy

By Edna Chiang (Microbiology PhD Student, CaSP Member)

(Views expressed here are my own and do not represent those of FASEB.)

This summer, I traded in my pipettes for policy, my sweatshirts for skirt suits, and my black, slate benchtop for the white, marble pillars of Congress. I completed a 12-week science policy internship in Washington, D.C. with the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). Here, I share what I did during my internship and personal reflections on what I learned.

What is FASEB?

The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) is the nation’s largest biological and biomedical research advocacy group. It represents 29 professional scientific societies and over 130,000 researchers. FASEB advances biological research by hosting conferences, publishing journals, creating professional development resources, and advocating for science.

What did I do?

I worked in the Office of Public Affairs as a member of the Legislative Affairs Team. Legislative Affairs consisted of my supervisor, Dr. Ben Krinsky, and myself. The Office of Public Affairs (#SciPolSquad) is a 5-6 person team consisting almost entirely of STEM PhDs—something not normal for most science policy organizations, which usually have only a handful of staff with STEM backgrounds.

I had two goals during my internship:

1)   Contribute to a National Science Foundation (NSF) education and advocacy campaign
      targeted towards Congress

2)   Help track important science issues

NSF Advocacy

I contributed to the FASEB campaign “NSF Matters” by helping coordinate a congressional briefing about NSF-funded research that addresses the global health issue of antimicrobial resistance.

A group of people sitting in front of a television

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This is the FASEB congressional briefing that kicked off their NSF Matters campaign. The briefing was called “From Basic Biology to One Health: How Research Funded by the National Science Foundation Addresses Crucial Health Challenges.” Photo credit: FASEB

To demonstrate why the NSF and the National Institutes of Health are vital partners in advancing biological research, I created a factsheet highlighting collaborative research between the two agencies.

I also participated in a Hill Day with the American Physiological Society, a FASEB member society. I spoke with congressional members and their staff about the importance of increasing NSF funding by sharing my story about how NSF has positively impacted my life.

A group of people walking in front of a building

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Standing in front of the US Capitol building during the American Physiological Society Hill Day. I ran around Capitol Hill with Dr. Hannah Carey and Dr. Jonathan Stecyk to talk to our congressional members and their staff about why funding NSF is important. L to R: Edna Chiang, Dr. Hannah Carey (FASEB President; University of Wisconsin-Madison), and Dr. Jonathan Stecyk (University of Alaska-Anchorage).

Tracking Important Issues

The portfolio of scientific issues I was tracking included: the NSF, government budget (appropriations), foreign influence on science, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, sexual harassment in STEM, and STEM entrepreneurship programs.

To stay up to date on these issues, I attended events all around D.C.— in fact, I power-walked ~6 miles a day when doing this. These events included congressional briefings and hearings, as well as stakeholder meetings for government agencies like the NSF, professional scientific societies like the American Society for Microbiology, and coalitions of organizations committed to common goals like increasing research funding for the Department of Energy or the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For particularly interesting or important events, I wrote summary articles for FASEB’s Washington Update newsletter. This newsletter is published every other week to a broad audience of people interested in science policy, including FASEB members, public affairs staff at FASEB member societies, and anyone who signs up for the newsletter.

What did I like?

I felt that everything I did during my internship served the scientific community much more than my research as a PhD student ever would. This feeling kept me motivated even when completing less exciting tasks like reading multiple 400-page government documents.

Life in D.C. was fast-paced and exciting. Hard deadlines were often in hours/days rather than the longer 6-year flexible timeline we have as PhD students. Some particularly exciting events that occurred during my internship included the administration’s ban on fetal tissue research, an introduced bill that would allow patenting of genes, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s official announcement of their relocation from D.C. to Kansas City.

My internship also changed the way that I look at science. As a PhD student, it was easy to live in my academic bubble and see science as just my dissertation. However, the reality of science is that there are multiple policy decisions that need to be made before my research is possible. Therefore, it’s important to think of science as a national enterprise rather than something that happens only at my bench.

What was surprising?

What Congress knew about science. Or rather, what Congress didn’t know about science.

My favorite story occurred during my first week on the job. I attended a congressional briefing about gene editing and CRISPR. These events usually have an audience of congressional staffers who have little to no background in STEM. During the Q&A, questions included, “Can you use CRISPR to change someone’s race?” and “Can you use CRISPR to cure a veteran’s PTSD?” These questions literally dropped my jaw. After recovering from my initial shock, I realized that I greatly overestimated the amount of biomedical science that non-biologists understand. The questions and the motivations behind them also fascinated me because they revealed issues on the audience’s mind and the creative future applications they foresaw.

A common theme I noticed was the use of competition as motivation for science. I normally thought of science as a collective effort where scientists across the globe work together in pursuit of knowledge and truth. Contrary to my idyllic vision, I learned that the most common motivation for increasing science funding was to ensure that the U.S. does not fall behind foreign nations like China. This is one of the many ways that I burst my academic bubble and learned about the different values that drive policymakers. 

What was difficult?

My hardest challenge was overcoming imposter syndrome, which was unimaginably worse as a science policy intern than as a PhD student. It was exacerbated by two main reasons:

1) Entering a new professional setting with no training

I had absolutely no experience in science policy prior to my internship, which made it extremely difficult to speak up because I felt I was completely unqualified to do so. I didn’t know the history behind the issues I covered, so how was I able to form an opinion without knowing the whole picture? What should have been small challenges, like learning science policy vernacular with its never-ending list of acronyms and diplomatic tone, felt unsurmountable.

2) Poor diversity

I walked into my internship knowing that the policy world was very white and male. As someone who grew up in a predominantly white Midwestern suburb, I didn’t think the lack of diversity would be challenging because I experienced it all my life. What I didn’t consider is that as a female East Asian American working in microbiology, I am privileged and not an underrepresented minority in my field.

However, that is absolutely not the case in science policy. In most events I attended, I was one of two or three people of color in the room. I was almost always the only woman of color. I can count on one hand the total number of East Asian women I saw working in science policy during my 12-week internship (it was four). Overcoming imposter syndrome is a long-term process, but my experience as a science policy intern has motivated me to become a stronger ally for those marginalized by issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM.

I’m now back to my usual life as a PhD student with my pipettes, sweatshirts, and black, slate benchtop. But I’m not entirely the same. I have a new, impassioned motivation to support and improve STEM, stronger skills to do so, and a great community in CaSP to achieve these shared goals.