Monday, 10 February 2014 13:03

Lower Case "P" or Dot in the Middle, Grad Students Fire Up Science Advocacy Club

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washington1A "Hill Day" expedition last September fired up Emory
graduate students (L-R) Chelsey Chandler, Julia
Omotade, and Amanda York to go back to Atlanta
and help launch a science advocacy club on campus.
Photo courtesy of Julia Omotade
It was either serendipity or the anxiety of an entire generation of graduate students coming to a boil, but last fall something triggered an explosion of science advocacy on the Emory University campus in Atlanta. A grad student "advocacy journal club" has sprung to life with 50 members, ambitious plans for organizing more, and a working alliance with the dean and with Emory's Office of Governmental Affairs.

Ariana Mullin, a fifth-year graduate student, is the president—"at the moment," she says—of the science advocacy club, which—at the moment—has two names. It's either "political Scientists" with a small "P" or "Political.Scientists" with a period in the middle, Mullin explains. "We go back and forth on how to write it. We're not 'political scientists' in the academic term. We're scientists who are political but we don't want to make it look like a mistake that we forgot to capitalize that 'P.' So we've taken to alternating."

The double name fits with the multiple origins of the group last fall. There was Mullin, increasingly dismayed by the dire career prospects facing grad students, who was organizing a science advocacy club through Emory's Graduate Student Council (GSC). And then there were the three grad students who Chas Easley, a cell biologist in the Emory medical school, dragged off to Washington, DC, last September.

As Easley, who also serves on the ASCB Public Policy Committee and has been doing "Hill Days" since his days as a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University, remembers it, a trip to Washington was on his mind. With the train wreck of the sequestration and the government shutdown looming, Easley decided it was time to make his yearly call on the Georgia delegation, working through the advocacy arm of the Coalition for Life Sciences (CLS) which ASCB helps support. It would be nice, he thought, to bring along students if he could find volunteers. Outside his biomedical research building, he spotted a group of grad students, none from his lab, but familiar faces from around the department. Easley recalls, "I saw them outside as I was coming back from lunch and I said, 'Hey guys, in a couple of weeks I'm thinking of doing this (again) and if you're interested...I didn't think that any of them (would be interested) so it was just a shot in the dark." By the time he got to his lab, he already had emails from three grad students who'd been on the steps.

The three, Amanda York, Chelsey Chandler, and Julia Omotade, were anxious to make their concerns felt in Washington but nervous about confronting politicians. On the Hill where they met largely with legislative staffers, the three rapidly got over their nervousness. "It was fun to watch them get more and more excited as the day went on," Easley recalls. "They got so fired up that when they got back, they were talking to their classmates about what they had done and how to get involved." Easley started getting emails from other students, including his own, asking why they hadn't been asked to go to Washington. "I could only take three," he says in his defense. "And I didn't think I'd get that many."

For Omotade, who is from Maryland, the DC trip was the first time she'd ever been "inside" government. Growing up in suburban Silver Spring and during her undergraduate years at Catholic University in the District, she'd been on innumerable field trips to the Capitol but had never heard of a "Hill Day" before Easley described it. "I'd never done anything like that," Omotade says. "I've never taken any active stance in advocacy especially in science advocacy. But it was good for me to actually see that there's a gap between politics and science." Talking science and science funding with Hill staffers was exciting, she said. "Everyone was super cordial and friendly. We'd been told to be prepared for some people to be combative but I was pleasantly surprised about how much these people know about NIH budgeting."

Back in Atlanta, York, Chandler, and Omotade immediately connected with Mullin. When the club application came before the GSC, Lisa Tedesco, the dean of the Laney Graduate School at Emory, got wind of the "political Scientists/Political.Scientists" club and offered her enthusiastic support to get it going.

By whatever name, the political scientist club of Emory's Laney Graduate School now has roughly 50 active members with recruiting plans for students at Emory's medical school and school of public health. A science advocacy club "mixer" for reaching more grad students is also in the cards. The club is listed on the campus "Community" server where grad students can check out the group and sign up. Mullin says that "Community" server is sending her new names every day and she is hoping membership will rise into the hundreds.

A "board of leaders" including York, Chandler, and Omotade meets regularly to channel all this energy. A tentative target date is April for an Emory advocacy day on Capitol Hill when the grad students hope to coordinate a DC trip with Emory's Office of Government Affairs, the independent CLS, and ASCB's Public Policy Committee, according to Mullin. But first the "political Scientists/Political.Scientists" will hold training sessions to prepare members to cross the border between bench science and science advocacy. "We really need to work on that elevator speech thing and getting our points across," says Mullin. "That's one of those things that, as scientists, we're not really primed to do. We love to talk about our research but we're not great at communicating it when we only have a short time to get it across."

But what sparked all this activity? Easley says he has seen a growing concern among "the next generation of scientists" about research as a viable career but until this advocacy club jelled, grad students just didn't know this was an option.

Mullin says that tracks closely with her personal experience. " I realized that the research I wanted to do in my life and the research that I'd always thought was important, wasn't going to be funded [as I progressed in my career]. That really scared me." It scares her grad school peers too, says Mullin. "That's one thing that's always in the back of our minds. The number of us who want to be involved in research is always growing while the number of jobs always seems to be shrinking."

John Fleischman

John is ASCB Senior Science Writer and the author among other things of two nonfiction books for older children, "Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science" and "Black & White Airmen," both from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, Boston.

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