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As I was about to leave graduate school...

By Tina Rouse 1998-99 AAAS Fellow at the Food and Drug Administration 1994-96 AAAS Fellow at the U.S. Agency for International Development, Bureau for Global Programs

As I was about to leave graduate school I realized that, while I enjoyed the scientific pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, I also wanted to have a more immediate and visible impact in society. My research focus was relatively obscure and didn’t seem to have many immediate applications: the response of half-million-year-old prairie dogs to glacier advances and retreats. In the course of that study, however, I had developed a strong background in organismal biology, and I thought it would serve me well in the science and policy realm. So I applied for, and was awarded, a AAAS Diplomacy Fellowship.  And then, four years later, I accepted a AAAS Risk Policy Fellowship.

One topic I worked on during my Diplomacy Fellowship was global climate change.  When I later encountered a recent climate change risk assessment, it seemed to be an innovative and powerful tool for evaluating the scientific evidence for global climate change in a policy context. The opportunity to learn about this new policymaking framework as a Risk Policy Fellow at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was very exciting. Although I had not previously worked in public health or food safety, I relished the challenge of immersing myself in a new scientific field. As a Risk Policy Fellow, I worked on a variety of issues (mercury in seafood, dietary supplements, U.S.-Mexico border health), but my major project was a risk assessment of Listeria monocytogenes (a common foodborne microbe that causes an uncommon but often fatal disease). Risk assessment is still very new in food safety and this study was just getting started when I began my fellowship, so I was able to get in at the ground floor and participate in adapting theoretical techniques to real-world circumstances.  Most research is not done for the purpose of risk assessment, so I learned how to take the available data and recast it to answer a risk assessment question and to make the best possible scientific and policy decisions in the face of this uncertainty.

Having now worked at three federal agencies, I’ve learned that each one uses science differently in its policy-making deliberations. FDA’s sole charge is regulating food and drugs for public health and safety. It is by far the most science-based agency that I’ve encountered, and provided the most straightforward science and policy experience I’ve had.

Since leaving FDA, I’ve been working as a study director at the National Academy of Sciences on issues of agriculture, food safety, animal health, and risk assessment. My experience with the Listeria risk assessment team was excellent preparation for running committee-based studies, and working with a wide range of experts to draw out their best scientific knowledge and judgment on important policy issues. I appreciate the opportunities I’ve had to delve into new scientific realms that would not have been open to me in a non-fellowship setting, and to use my knowledge for maximum impact.  Clearly, AAAS fellowships have served as a springboard to fulfill my dual needs to be intellectually challenged and to make a difference in the world around me.

Tina Rouse served as a Diplomacy Fellow in 1994–96 and as a Risk Policy Fellow in 1998–99. She received her Ph.D. in integrative biology from the University of California at Berkeley.

The AAAS science and technology policy fellowship programs have provided unique, exciting, and challenging opportunities for over 1,200 scientists and engineers to contribute to public policy-making in the federal government since 1973.  As a window into these experiences, our Web site offers essays by 12 former Fellows about their respective years in Washington, DC. These first-hand accounts explore the diversity of programs and experiences, and detail why qualified individuals might choose to apply. They also reveal the course their professional careers took following involvement in the programs. Please visit our site to hear them speak. Also consider inviting a former Fellow to meet with a group on your campus. If you are interested in this opportunity, please call our office at 202/326-6700.

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.