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“Caramba, these people are good!”

By Rafael Olivieri 1997-99 AAAS Fellow at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water

“Caramba, these people are good!” was my first thought the day I saw the list of fellowship candidates invited for the interviews. How would I fare? The candidates encompassed a wide range of scientific and engineering expertise, and many had been educated at some of the nation’s finest institutions. Months later, on the first day of the fellowship year, when some 60 new AAAS Fellows gave a sound byte about themselves, I thought again, “these people are REALLY GOOD!” I was honored to be included in such a talented group, and felt challenged to perform well during my year at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

For me, applying for the AAAS Environmental Fellowship was not the result of a single event or a sudden change in career goals. It was an opportunity to satisfy a growing desire to mix my scientific and technical knowledge with my other interests: outreach, science communication, decision-making, problem-solving, and interaction with people.

I had two assignments during my time as an EPA Fellow. Initially, I worked in EPA’s Office of Water on issues related to coral reef eutrophication. Later, I was placed in the National Center for Environmental Assessment and worked on problems associated with harmful algal blooms. Both assignments provided the opportunity to interact with staff in what I describe as a ‘pseudo-government employee’ role. Similar to a regular government employee, I participated in technical, management, and planning meetings and used my marine science training on projects that benefited the agency. A senior manager said he was glad to have AAAS Fellows in the office because “they shake the system by providing outside perspectives and knowledge and, on many occasions, identify things that a typical federal employee will not bring up.”

The fellowship also provided a travel budget that allowed me to participate in two science conferences, one of them in the Philippines, and provided opportunities to attend briefings on Capitol Hill and a year-long program of AAAS fellowship seminars, all of which were enriching professional experiences.  

The most valuable part of the fellowship, however, was the opportunity to interact with Fellows working in other fields. During my graduate program, most of my professional interaction had been with people with similar research interests. In contrast, the AAAS fellowship allowed me to exchange ideas with a diverse group of professionals—those same people who had impressed me on the first day as being REALLY GOOD—from engineers to anthropologists, all of whom were united by a common interest in science policy issues. It was satisfying and refreshing to learn how professionals from different disciplines viewed a common problem. This interaction provided a network of talented colleagues and friends, which has evolved into a valuable resource in my work as a consultant.

I believe that the AAAS fellowships provide excellent opportunities for scientists and engineers interested in science policy, from individuals who have just completed their Ph.D.s to university professors on sabbatical. The ability to learn about the policymaking process by bringing science to the dialog proved to be an exciting experience.

The author served as an Environmental Fellow at EPA from 1997 to 1999. He has a Ph.D. in biology from the University of California–Santa Cruz.

There are many junctures in a career when the circumstances are right for a scientist or engineer to spend a year in Washington, DC, learning about the interface of science and government. Postdoctoral to midcareer professionals are in demand to serve as AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows in the Congress or a dozen federal agencies. And it is clear from the career paths of the 1,266 former Fellows that the fellowship opportunities have contributed to their career advancement. If this opportunity interests you and others in your department, call the AAAS fellowship office at 202/326-6700 and we will provide a representative to meet with a group on your campus.

Claudia J. Sturges - Director, AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship Program

Disclaimer: The perspectives and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, the U.S. Government, or the federal agencies/offices mentioned.