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I initially balked at writing an essay...

By Trish Powell 2001-03 AAAS Fellow at the National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

I initially balked at writing an essay on my AAAS public policy fellowship. My story about a windowless office, which is not even on the main campus of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), can hardly compete with the exotic travels described by Diplomacy Fellows in previous issues of Fellowship Focus. However, as a AAAS/NIH Science Policy Fellow I found a different kind of excitement at NIH, which was ideal for me, and I ultimately realized the story of being a Fellow in a windowless office was well worth telling.

Fellows arrive with a range of experiences and reasons for coming to DC. Some are disillusioned with academic life, some want to enrich their academic careers; others want a new career in policy — either in DC or the state level. My circumstance was I really enjoyed the research but wanted to extend what one person could do at the bench into a broader effort. My research experience on genetic engineering in plants for viral resistance in the 80’s drove my initial interest in science policy. Watching the debate on the issue of genetically modified organisms play out over the past two decades has been eye opening. During the AAAS interview process it became even clearer to me that my ties to the science were quite strong. I found the NIH fellowship program, where science figures front and center in every decision (though is not always the sole or prevailing factor) was where I was most comfortable.

My choice for placement at the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) was in some ways an odd choice since my graduate research in transgenic plants and subsequent work on animal developmental genetics did not have any alcohol focus. In addition, the policy issues surrounding this field were unfamiliar to me. However, I went with my instincts, choosing a mentor whom I felt would give me the best fellowship experience, and it worked.

My experience at NIAAA has run the gamut from organizing a workshop on the potential for proteomics in alcohol research to meetings with the Surgeon General on drinking prevention in youth ages nine to 15. I have participated in strategic planning for science initiatives and drafted Senate hearing testimony, run a grant review panel and worked with the Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free, a national initiative supported by NIAAA and spearheaded by 34 current governors’ spouses and 15 emeritus members.

It is possible to find every variation of experience at NIH — from an almost exclusive focus on science — within one’s own field or something completely different, to interfacing with Congress and other executive branch functions, to strategic planning, and everything in between.

In addition, every Fellow can live vicariously through the experiences of the other AAAS Fellows. Sharing experiences, both positive and negative, is an integral part of the fellowship. Although I was less active than some, having a new baby and a young child, I benefited both from formal interactions such as co-chairing the seminar committee and from informal gatherings. Every fellowship experience is unique just as every Fellow is unique and for me NIH offered the perfect balance. By Trish Powell

Patricia A. Powell served as a AAAS/NIH Science Policy Fellow from 2001-03. She received a PhD in molecular and cellular biology from Washington University and is currently a health science administrator in the Office of Scientific Affairs, NIAAA/NIH.

AAAS selects about 60 science and technology policy fellows each year to work in Washington, DC, to learn how science is used in government. They learn by participating in the process, focusing on issues relating to defense, the environment, health, security, agriculture, space, transportation and a myriad of other topics. What happens next? After their fellowship year, one third return to their previous positions, one third stay in Washington, DC, and one third use the experience as a career stepping stone. It isn’t always clear coming into the fellowship year which route a Fellow will take at the conclusion. See for program 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.