Skip to main content

I had long felt that I was a science heretic...

By Roberta Hotinski 2002-03 AAAS/NSF Science and Engineering fellow

I had long felt that I was a science heretic. I loved studying Earth history and the intricacies of Earth system modeling, but forbidden texts, like policy articles in Science, were more alluring to me than technical papers. I frequently strayed from the path of pure research, making forays into science writing and informal education. And perhaps most damning, I had a suspiciously nice Web page. As I reached the end of a postdoc and contemplated devoting myself to research in a tenure-track position, I had an epiphany — my “heretical” activities were the most enjoyable and rewarding part of my work! I decided that I wanted to work full time on communicating and promoting science, but how was I to make the leap from research?

The answer for me was a AAAS/NSF Fellowship. During the AAAS Fellows orientation, I spent time with 100 other scientists and engineers who were also intrigued by the intersection of science and policy. I became convinced that I wasn’t a heretic, but that it had just taken some time to find the right sect for me.

I started my new path in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Office of Legislative and Public Affairs (OLPA). NSF Fellows in OLPA move around the three main sections of the Office — media relations, congressional affairs, and issues development or speechwriting. In my first few months I worked in the media section and covered the Math and Physical Science Directorate. Next I joined the speechwriting team, and was soon writing remarks for the Director on science education and other NSF priority areas. Finally I moved to the legislative section, where I gained a new appreciation for Congress’ influence on research while attending hearings and reviewing NSF’s compliance with its authorizing legislation. I felt at home in this new community — people liked a good metaphor more than an equation, but were passionate about promoting science, engineering and mathematics.

Working literally at the top of NSF (on the 12th floor), you get an overview of all the disciplines NSF supports, plus insight into education and diversity issues. Although it’s not quite a religious experience, you do sense the unity of the scientific research effort. You also get to see how research agendas are set and see science policy decisions being made at the highest levels. Other NSF Fellows working within various directorates got a more comprehensive view of particular programs, but I enjoyed the variety and “big picture” focus of my OLPA tenure.

Once I finished my one-year fellowship, I was well-prepared to set off on a variety of different tacks. I decided I had found my calling in science communication and applied for my current position — information officer for a research initiative at Princeton University. My OLPA experience was great preparation for the work I do now — communicating research results to our corporate sponsors, BP and Ford, as well as to non-governmental organizations, policy-makers and the general public. Plus, my mentors and colleagues from OLPA are great networking resources, with ties to Capitol Hill, government agencies, the non-profit sector and news organizations.

My conversion to science communication has shocked some and surprised many who believe that I’ve “left science.” Rather than leave the faith, however, I’ve just moved to a different congregation. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it.” By Roberta Hotinski

Roberta Hotinski served as a AAAS/NSF Science and Engineering Fellow in 2002–03. She received a PhD in geosciences from the Pennsylvania State University and is currently an information officer for the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton University

Placement week for AAAS fellowship finalists takes place in Washington, DC, at the end of April. Finalists, identified during March, will interview in a wide array of federal offices. Finding a placement is what produces the offer of a fellowship. The AAAS fellowship staff is central to this process, but each potential Fellow has full say about where s/he will be placed and can talk to the supervisors/mentors about the assignments that are likely during the year. The first step in the process is to apply for a fellowship. Interested individuals should begin now to think about participating in the 2005–06 programs. Visit our Web site for full details:

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.