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Chemists take The Capitol
PhD students learn about science’s role in government through fellowship at American Association for the Advancement of Science
March 19, 2020
After finishing a biophysics postdoc, Joelle A. Labastide joined five other chemists in a yearlong science policy fellowship in Washington DC. The fellows learned about policy and how science is used in the government. Working with a foreign aid agency taught Labastide about collaboration and using her critical thinking skills outside of the science lab.
From ‘Lessons learned from a year in Washington’
Six chemists came to the US capital to spend a year working in federal agencies and Congress as part of a science policy fellowship program. All learned how scientific expertise fits into the complicated policy ecosystem.
Joelle A. Labastide had never heard of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). Coming out of a postdoc in biophysics, Labastide was frustrated with her experience as a black woman in science. She hoped her fellowship could help her understand how the science education system fails underrepresented minorities and women.
MCC’s international development mission, which touches on education, health, infrastructure, and reducing global poverty, intrigued her. “It gives me an amazing opportunity to potentially look at all of these interconnected pieces and at the way that changes actually affect people,” she says.
She started a project to track the agency’s project goals. Getting the project off the ground required Labastide to interact with people from many disciplines. As chemists, “most of us are used to being left alone in the lab and not having to talk to another person for a while,” Labastide says.“I feel out of place, but in a productive way. I definitely feel like I’m observing something that’s still very foreign to me.”
At the MCC, she needed to personally convince people that her project would help them. In government, many decisions are made one-on-one or in small groups, she says. Scientists can learn to be an important part of that effort. “Trust that your analytical skills—your ability to figure things out—is actually your best product.”