Reflections on my Congressional Fellowship

31. August 2012

Laura K. Povlich

The year that I’ve spent as the 2011-2012 Materials Research Society and Optical Society Congressional Science and Engineering fellow has been incredible. Not only did I work in a Congress member’s office, but for the last four months I filled the role of the health adviser. It’s difficult to believe that just a little over a year ago I was defending my Ph.D. in engineering, and now I’m advising a member of Congress on actions related to Medicare, Medicaid and other health policy topics.

I applied for the MRS/OSA fellowship because I was interested in exploring an alternative career path. At the time I wasn’t really sure what this meant, but I knew that I wanted to see what I could do with my Ph.D. besides lab research. I was hoping that the fellowship would give me the opportunity to experience a science policy career and decide whether it was for me. In the process, I’ve realized that there are so many science policy job options—in  Congress, government agencies, non-profits or think-tanks, industry, and academia—that  there is no single definition of a policy career path.

Although the countless choices might seem overwhelming, I heard a useful piece of advice at a fellowship career seminar. One of the speakers explained that those interested in science policy shouldn’t try to aspire to a certain position or title, but instead aim to do the work that they find most gratifying.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s not often how we think of setting up a career. Coming from an academic background, I had always aspired to the most prestigious title—professor. But now, I think of my career in terms of the impact that I want to have and the topics that I find fascinating. While this may not help me develop an end goal for my career, reaching a set target no longer seems so important.

As for where my career is going next, my fellowship in Congress has made me to realize that I don’t currently have a desire to work in politics. However, I would like to continue dealing with health policy issues. I also miss interacting more closely with scientific topics and other scientists, although not necessarily in an academic context. Therefore, I’ve accepted an AAAS Science & Technology Policy fellowship at the National Institutes of Health Fogarty International Center. I plan to use this position to guide policies and research that improve global health outcomes.

I am eternally grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to explore different science policy options through the MRS/OSA fellowship. It allowed me to jump into a congressional position that I would never have been hired for otherwise, and revealed just how valuable scientists can be in the policy world. I hope that other scientists who are interested in exploring non-traditional jobs apply for the fellowship and discover their own science policy career paths.

Laura K. Povlich (lpovlich@gmail.com) earned her Ph.D. in macromolecular science and engineering at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 2011. Her passion for health policy developed in graduate school and also while serving as the 2011-2012 MRS/OSA Congressional Fellow in Rep. Sander Levin’s office. Laura is now the 2012-2013 AAAS Science & Technology Policy fellow at the NIH Fogarty International Center.

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The Purpose of Grad School: A Socratic Dialog

23. August 2012

David Woolf

Last January, while I was at a conference to give a talk on my thesis work, I had a conversation with a professor over breakfast. It went something like this:

Professor:  What do you think is the number one output of academia?

Me: Groundbreaking research, discoveries and breakthroughs that push the forefront of what is possible further forward.

Professor: Wrong! Try again.

Me: What do you mean, “wrong”? What else could it be? There’s no other way to make progress. You have a huge number of problems to solve, so you throw a huge number of people at them. At least some of those individuals are capable of making a big discovery.

Professor: So how many people end up doing that?

Me: Oh, probably way less than one percent.

Professor: Right. So that tiny fraction of scientists will get fame and glory, but what about the other 99+ percent? What will they do?

Me: Well, some will become professors, but most will probably go into industry, or finance or something else altogether.

Professor: Exactly! They’ll take the skills they learned in grad school and apply them in the workplace, either within their field or outside of it.

Me: Sure, we all contribute, but most of us aren’t making any lasting difference. We aren’t discovering the laser, or the transistor, or…

Professor: Ahh, but you’ve got it backwards. Don’t get me wrong: Those discoveries were immensely important. But the greatest output of academia is not the science; it’s the students. Everyone who goes through graduate school is given a vast array of skills to apply in a thousand different ways—in industry, in business, in education, or otherwise. The whole process would be useless if this weren’t true. The great, world-changing discoveries are just a fortunate byproduct.

Me: I’m not sure I agree.

Professor: Well, think about it.

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So I thought about it, and I realized he was right. Ph.D. programs are long but highly rewarding slogs, and it’s easy to end up with a skewed perspective. I’m lucky to have an advisor who has been supportive of both my research and of me personally, and yet I’ve still spent many years forgetting which was more important: my work or myself.

Grad school, though demanding, comes with great freedom and many opportunities for growth. In the past seven years, I’ve studied everything from plasmonics to optomechanics. I came to wrong conclusions more often than I came to right ones. I learned how to correct myself. I lectured on semiconductor laser physics and audited a class on the scientific and technological aspects of policy making. I picked up (and forgot) French. In short, I learned a lot.  Even if I never make a “big discovery,” I’ll be able to use the knowledge that I gained in grad school to contribute to the world in myriad ways. We invest so much in our educations that we often lose sight of how much our schools have invested in us in return.

David Woolf (dnwoolf@gmail.com) received his bachelor’s degree in optical science and engineering from the University of California, Davis in 2005, where he helped start and was president of the U.C. Davis OSA Student Chapter. He is currently finishing up his Ph.D. in applied physics at Harvard University. His research interests include optomechanics, plasmonics and the Casimir effect.

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Combining Science with Public Policy

17. August 2012

T.J. Augustine

When I started graduate school, I assumed that I would pursue a career in academics. However, about halfway through my Ph.D., I realized that that was not the right career path for me. I had always been interested in government and passionate about public policy issues. I began to wonder whether I could combine my background in science with my interest in public service. However, when I started talking to the people I knew in science, most had no idea how to help me get started. Since then, I have met many other scientists who have had similar experiences after deciding to pursue a career outside the traditional academic and industrial tracks. 

Now, six years after starting to think seriously about jumping into government, I have finished a year as an OSA/SPIE Congressional Fellow in the office of Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D.-Ill.) and started a new position in the U.S. Department of Energy as Special Assistant to the Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu. Recently, I’ve been asked by a number of grad students and post docs what steps I took to get these positions. I thought this would be a great opportunity to share some advice for current grad students who are trying to navigate a path into the policy world.

Make connections in the field. After finishing my Ph.D., I completed a master’s degree in public policy. Although an extra degree is not for everyone, it allowed me to meet people who have spent their careers working in policy. I was able to use these connections to track down scientists who had also worked in government. These people were fantastic resources, and they have served as role models at this early stage of my career. 

Get involved. No matter how you end up getting your first policy position, you need to build a resume that shows more than your educational background and some papers you published. Take advantage of any opportunity you can find to demonstrate your interest in public issues. Volunteer for a political campaign, start a club at your university, write an op-ed for a local newspaper, or even just sit in on a class that deals with policymaking. Taking that first step may place you outside of your comfort zone, but subsequent steps will be easier. 

Look for fellowships. Once you’ve gotten your start in policy, the science and technology policy fellowships sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science are a fantastic way to get involved in the federal government. My OSA/SPIE Congressional Fellowship is part of that program. It was a fantastic experience that played a crucial role in helping me to find my current position.

Scientists typically have the ability to think outside the box and solve problems. Such skills are incredibly valuable, especially at a time when the U.S. government is faced with shrinking budgets and rising levels of debt. There is no time like the present for young scientists to bring their expertise to bear. All you need to do is dive in.

T.J. Augustine (tjaugustine3@gmail.com) is the Special Assistant to the Secretary at the United States Department of Energy. Prior to that, he was an OSA/SPIE/AAAS Congressional Fellow in the office of Sen. Richard J. Durbin and also worked as an intern in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. T.J. completed his Ph.D. in chemistry and a master’s degree in public policy at Stanford University.

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How to Survive—and Thrive—in Grad School

10. August 2012

Kasturi Saha

Regardless of your ultimate career goals, you should have the time of your life in graduate school and do your best to make your education count. Four years ago, when I received an offer to pursue a Ph.D. in physics at Cornell University, I was ecstatic. What I didn’t know then was that this initial excitement would soon vanish. What lay ahead were years filled with challenges and choices, both academic and personal. Here are a few ways to handle the difficult aspects of graduate school and have a good time doing it.

Find the right group. As an international student, I found that moving to a country with a different educational system and culture was a huge adjustment. I learned that choosing a good research group was crucial to making this transition easier. It is important to seek out a happy and balanced environment that is compatible with your research interests. The easiest way to figure out whether a group is right for you is to interact with the members and advisor. This will allow you to gauge the general level of satisfaction within the group, which ultimately sets the tone for your Ph.D. research.  You should also be careful when choosing your research topic. If you keep an open mind, you will discover research opportunities that you might never have considered when you first applied.

Push your limits. I have found that working on multiple projects simultaneously is a great way to keep life and work on track during my Ph.D. studies. Although it may be difficult to balance different priorities and learn new things at the same time, this approach increases your chances of success and builds confidence. Being engaged with multiple ventures allows you to continue being productive when one of them doesn’t work out. It also prevents you from feeling cynical and pessimistic.

Communicate. Have you ever wished that you had the courage to express your views? Don’t hesitate to share your thoughts and ideas, however silly they may seem to you. Brainstorming is an effective way to generate concrete research problems and ideas. Effective communication helps you to achieve exposure for your work, both amongst your peers and across the wider research community. Half-hearted communication can lead to misunderstandings and consequently wasted time and work. Often a one-on-one chat with your colleague or advisor can solve many problems.

Network and participate. Isolation can lead to a disastrous Ph.D. experience.  Share your work with others and learn about their achievements as well. Networking also fosters mutual growth for those involved and introduces you to a vast pool of resources that you can draw from. It is also important to give back to the community. This could include participating in outreach programs, organizing student seminars or other such activities. What you sacrifice in time you’ll gain in new skills, connections and accomplishments.

Have a social life. You might think that working days and nights in the lab will put you on the fast track to your degree. In reality, this is not the case. Working weekends and staying up late in the lab can lead to exhaustion, which is detrimental to both you and your work. All work and no play makes for dull grad students. Having good friends and taking part in social activities diverts your mind from the research grind and reminds you that there is life outside the lab.

Think about the big picture. My motivation for overcoming day-to-day frustrations often comes from thinking about my future and my larger dreams and goals.  I strongly suggest this kind of periodic self-evaluation. Think of grad school not as an end in itself, but as a stepping-stone to even greater success.

Kasturi Saha (ks652@cornell.edu) is a 5th year graduate student in Alexander Gaeta’s group in the School of Applied and Engineering Physics at Cornell University. She works in close collaboration with Michal Lipson’s group in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. She received her B.Sc. from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, India, and her M.Sc. in Physics from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.

 

 

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My Science Mid-Life Crisis: Too Old to Be the Prodigy, Too Young to Be the Authority

2. August 2012

Andrew Forbes

Although I feel like I graduated from university just yesterday, it recently dawned on me that I own a pair of hiking boots older than some of my graduate students. This realization came as a bit of a shock, and it led me to reflect on my current place as a middle-aged scientist in my field. Scientists my age are often stressed out, either because they haven’t made it big or because they have.

Publish or perish

Here is a quick pop quiz: Is your h-index about half your age? If not and you are 40 years old, then by my reckoning, you are not destined to join the halls of fame or win a Nobel Prize—unless, of course, you plan to work well into your 80s. (And, let’s face it, when was the last time you saw a member of the Academy of Sciences who appeared to be under 80 years old?) I was startled to learn that a recent visitor at my institution had published more than 500 journal papers. How did he manage such a feat? By my estimate, if you start writing papers seriously at age 30 and have a 30-year career, then you need to publish one journal article every three weeks to match this rate of publication. Don’t these people take holidays?

Scientific competition

It ultimately comes down to comparison and competition. Scientists love sizing up their work in relation to that of others. They also love seeing their names in print, being invited to speak at conferences, and getting selected to lead a team of researchers. I certainly do. Perhaps one way to avoid the science mid-life crisis is to work in a boring subject area where you will have little competition for the spotlight. The more arcane, the better. I believe there’s only one brave soul in stochastic singular optics, for example.

Unfortunately, however, that is unlikely to make you happy in the long run. I tell my students that it doesn’t really matter what you end up doing--whether it is academic, industrial or commercial--as long as you enjoy your work and you are very good at it. Sometimes we scientists forget the bigger picture. We are working towards the advancement of knowledge and society, and we all have an important contribution to make, no matter how small.

Making a difference

I recently read the thoughtful comments by Diana Antonosyan on this blog about the many challenges facing young scientists in developing countries. The situation she describes is true in my home country of South Africa—but with challenges come opportunities. In South Africa, and I imagine other developing countries as well, there is the chance to really make a difference. For example, my small research group is one of only a handful working in optics. I know all the other photonics researchers in the country on a first-name basis, and various government officials too. The community is small, and each individual effort counts.

In a context like this, one also tends to move up more quickly. The time between finishing a Ph.D. and leading a research group is astonishingly short. Before you know it, you are 40 and considered an expert in the country. Elsewhere, it would be much harder to distinguish yourself from the crowd. It is rare to be able to work in a place where what you do really matters. I encourage young people from developing countries to return to their homes and make a difference. I’m glad I did—even if it’s a small difference and I haven’t yet made my way into the Academy.  

Andrew Forbes (aforbes1@csir.co.za) is chief researcher and research group leader at the CSIR (South Africa), and serves on various national and international committees, including OSA.

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