Science Policy Initiative forges new opportunities for graduate students

Group aims to promote science policy career paths


The Student Policy Initiative organized a "January-term" course from Jan. 8-12 called "Introduction to Science Policy."

Courtesy Joel Baumgart

The Science Policy Initiative is a graduate student-run organization working to increase awareness of science policy careers and generate support from the University administration for students pursuing those professional paths. The team of graduate students, headed by doctorate Engineering students Michaela Rikard and Courtney Hill, of the Biomedical Engineering and Civil Engineering departments, respectively, seek to foster an environment conducive to increasing the competitiveness of students’ applications for science policy fellowships and to make science policy more visible at the University.

Over a conversation at a girls’ fondue night, Hill and Rikard bonded over a shared interest in science policy and decided to create the Contracted-Independent Organization to support and inform students at the University about opportunities in the field. After holding several widely-attended interest meetings, they contacted the Department of Engineering and Society, the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs and the Jefferson Scholars Foundation to help make the idea a reality.

Phil Trella, the University’s assistant vice president for graduate studies, played a large role in helping with both funding and publicizing the SPI.

“Because our interests aligned so well, I was more than happy to support them in getting their initiative off the ground, in providing them seed funding — if you will — to have gatherings and develop an annual schedule of activities,” Trella said. “We offered some support in terms of helping them with certain proposals that they were interested in writing and providing comments on those. And they’ve been very successful in that.”

Trella said that funding Rikard and Hill have received from  Schmidt Sciences will likely make the University “a national hub” for Ph.D. students interested in science policy careers.

The SPI has received a $100,000 grant from Schmidt Sciences, as well as $13,000 from the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs and the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, to continue their efforts on both national and local scales. According to Rikard, they intend to use the grant money to plan another Science Policy Symposium to be hosted by a student group in New York City, continue a lunch seminar series and host a career panel. In addition, they hope to organize policy-writing workshops in Washington D.C. and to initiate a micro-grant program to fund science policy organizations nationwide.

“We hope to continue to expand our visibility at U.Va. and across the country by hosting events and creating resources that are used by many student science policy organizations,” Rikard said. 

“Our ultimate goal is to increase the number of graduate students and post-docs at U.Va. applying to and receiving competitive science policy fellowships, but more importantly to educate and empower students to be effective advocates for science policy no matter what career pathway they may choose,” Rikard added. 

Hill, who recently received the Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship — a three-month opportunity to learn about science and technology policy at the Academies in Washington, D.C. — said she hopes to make science policy more prevalent at the University, where it has struggled to gain relevance in the past.

“The pathways are not present and they’re not talked about in U.Va. — especially the grad community — just because they’re such different worlds,” Hill said. “When you’re a scientist at the grad level, it is such a specific world, where your currency is essentially the papers you publish, and your name on the papers.”

As part of their goal to reach out more to the graduate student population, the group organized a an intensive “January-term” course from Jan. 8-12 called “Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy” taught by University research development program manager Joel Baumgart, a former American Association for the Advancement of Science Science and Technology Fellow and Mirzayan Fellow.

Baumgart required two well-known science policy textbooks for the course, but also included his own first-hand experience in the field and invited guest speakers to talk with the class.

One of the speakers to present to the class, Kei Koizumi, an AAAS visiting scholar, who worked in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Obama administration.

Baumgart hopes to not only teach attendees about the history of science policy, but also to inform students about fellowship opportunities and provide pragmatic guidance.

“The idea is just to get students, get the wheels turning, and get them to start thinking about these opportunities,” Baumgart said. “There’s where the students are now and there’s where they want to be in some placement — either in some fellowship or in a job position. It’s the in-between, the middle piece, what skills and competencies do they need to gain to compete for these fellowships — for these jobs — that’s what we get to thinking about.”

Most of the students in Baumgart’s course were doctoral students, although some post-doctoral students also enrolled. The attendees were part of a broad spectrum of disciplines such as biomedical sciences, physics, chemistry and environmental science.

One of the students, Matthew Diasio, a doctoral candidate studying materials science and engineering, said he took Baumgart’s course in order to find a way to get more involved in STEM policy.

“Early in grad school, I realized I wanted to work in science policy,” Diasio said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “When I would mention my interest to other people, they would almost always recommend the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship, but other than that, most people I spoke with didn't have recommendations on other ways to start working in policy with a STEM Ph.D…. I was really interested in this course after hearing through SPI that it was going to be like MIT's Science Policy Bootcamp, which is well-respected, and it sounded like a great opportunity to learn a lot about the field from an expert at U.Va.”

Rikard, Hill and Baumgart all noted that there is room for growth in the University’s focus on science policy. 

“I think we’re a little bit behind — perhaps a little bit asleep at the wheel — behind our peer institutions who are preparing very well for this,” Baumgart said. “I see a lot of schools that we don’t consider our equal academically, and yet, they’ve shown a lot of savvy and been very aware of these opportunities, and really seized upon them.”

However, Baumgart sees improvement in the way the University is beginning to approach fellowship opportunities.

“Finally we’re starting to really get in gear, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in a couple years’ time we had a lot of fellows and we should be happy that people are becoming prepared,” Baumgart said.

Correction: The article previously misstated the name of the “January-term” course as “Introduction to Science Policy.” The correct name is “Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy.” Additionally, the article previously misstated the name of Schmidt Sciences, calling it The Schmidt Family Foundation.

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