Friday, July 6, 2012

From Astrophysics to the Hill

This week's guest blogger is Johanna Teske, who is finishing her fourth year as an Astronomy graduate student at the University of Arizona, Steward Observatory. Johanna's science research focuses on observing and modeling exoplanet atmospheres, studying in particular their relationship to their host-star atmospheres. She also dabbles in education research, studying on how science fits into the worldview of students and how their enculturation of science helps/hinders their learning and understanding of it. She is excited and honored to be posting on Women In Astronomy.

From Astrophysics to the Hill
By Johanna Teske

Dr. Anna Quider is currently a Congressional Fellow working in a representative’s office on the Hill. She was awarded her Ph.D. in Astrophysics from the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge after starting there on a Marshall Scholarship in 2007 and continuing through last year on a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. I met Anna when she came to the University of Arizona to speak in an "alternative/non-academic careers" series that we stared last year for our graduate students and post-docs in Astronomy and Planetary Science. Her Congressional Science and Engineering Fellowship is facilitated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), though funded by the American Physical Society (APS). 

J: Can you describe what is involved in getting your fellowship?  
A: The application can be accessed on the APS website ( and it is due in January of the year you’d like to start the fellowship. Generally, interviews are held in March/April and offers are made soon after interviews. I was awarded a stipend for one year from the APS and it runs from September 1st through August 31st of the next year. People who are awarded this fellowship then go through placement week in September where they interview for a job with any Congress-person/committee office that they like in Congress, House or Senate, Democrat or Republican, any topic, any person that they want. There are some offices/committees that get in touch with AAAS because they would like to have a Fellow, but others don't know about the fellowship program, and fellows can contact them directly.

J: How do you choose where to work/who to work with, there seem to be so many options?! 
A: That is true! You become quickly overwhelmed. There was something like 75 or so options on our list from AAAS, between offices (personal offices), working on the staff of a senator or Congressman/woman. There were also committees, like, the Committee on Natural Resources, that you could work on, as well. I based my interviews off the list of offices who already said they wanted a Fellow. Between first and second interviews, I did something like 23 interviews, in almost 2 weeks. I wanted to interview in offices that said that they would be flexible with my portfolio, and where the member that I would be working for was on committees that I find interesting. I knew I wanted an office that was really going to invest in me and mentor me as a person. I didn't have something to "go back to", whereas some fellows were only taking a year off from their permanent job or something. For me, it was like, "This is my life, so here we go!'

J: And so what is involved in doing the job your have now? 
A: My portfolio now includes all of science and technology, higher education, and all of research and innovation. That has led to the connection with business; I do tech startups, and legislation with that. In the mix lately have been cyber security and the internet, so it's pretty cool. I also do telecommunications, which has been really big because the Universal Service Fund is being restructured this year, so I've been paying attention to that. 
Baseline, you have to make sure that you are informed on all of the legislation that has come to the House floor, which will be voted upon and discussed by the whole House. When a Congress member introduces legislation, they ask for co-signers; I go through and look at all of those in my issue areas and see if which ones would be good for my Congressman to sign on to. I also actually get to help write legislation! Right now I'm working on 4...well, 5 bills. Since starting in my office, my Congressman has introduced two bills that I’ve worked on. One will make treatment more available to people with substance abuse problems, and the other facilitates international science cooperation. I had to work with the lawyers for Congress that actually know about the laws that have been passed. They help you write a new law that jives well with the legal code, and does what you want it to do in legal speak. We had to work with the groups from our district that want these bills, too. 
The other legislation I'm working on includes another international science bill, and one on access to non-debt financing for startups through venture development organizations. The fifth one is an international conservation bill, which I'm kind of on the periphery on. But for the other four, I'm the office point-person on them.

J: How does your Congressman, and your office, decide what to sign on to, what to support?
A: That involves just being really plugged into our community. I have meetings all the time; when we're busy, I have ten meetings a day, from 10 minutes to an hour, depending upon on who you're meeting with and why you’re meeting with them. 

J: So, you write legislation, track other people's legislation, and give recommendations about what to vote for when it comes up for vote. Anything else?
A: I write memos for my boss when he goes to hearings. If it's on a topic that I'm working on, I'll give him suggested questions to ask. I write statements for the record or statements for him to read on the House floor regarding things that are my topic. It's all about knowing things and people, being informed, knowing what's going on.

J: What do you see as differences/similarities between working in the government and working in academia?
A: There are some differences in the work that you do, obviously. I would say a difference is being accurate with your language. My office makes fun of me because I am often too precise in my language in memos.
Honestly, a big difference is dealing with a situation that is immediately relevant. Someone records my Congressman’s speeches, so that content is on Facebook and YouTube and being Tweeted around. That makes everything we do part of the national (and global) media.

J: So, your impact is not only much quicker, but much broader. It sounds obvious, but a lot more people are much more quickly affected by what you are doing every day.
A: When it comes to doing the public stuff, yes. But most of what I do has a much longer timeline associated with it. For most of the bills that I'm working on right now, we do not expect any of them to even come up for a vote in the House of Representatives during this Congressional session.

J: But if you don't have that long-term outlook, then nothing will get done, right?
A: Yeah! That's one frustration that is similar to academia. You will spend hours and hours of your life working on a document, a bill or a paper, that very few will ever read. Most papers that people publish in academia have limited impact. But they'll say that the paper adds a little bit to our scientific knowledge, and that's what people say about these bills. It may take 10 years for the same bill being introduced to get any traction.

J: In academia, I think you are very responsible for yourself and your own image, and there is a lot of impact on how people view you with respect to your work. I know I have trouble keeping separate the comments people make about my work versus comments about me as a person. And it sounds like in your work, while it's not easier, it is much more separate – you versus your work. You have to be separate.
A: Yes, I think that is definitely true. I think the way that you are judged is really different. In academia, it's all about how smart you are, how good of ideas you have. A lot of self-worth in academia is based on your brain, the quality of your ideas, how many grants you pull in, your publications. All of that is tied into your ability to think and be creative and know science. In my current job, my soft skills are valued possibly even more than my ability to have good ideas. It's important to have good ideas, but most of what I do is being personable and articulate in representing and communicating the Congressman's ideas and in taking information from piles A, B, and C, synthesizing them, and giving them to the Congressman in an articulate way.
We all know cases where there is a really smart, top science person who cannot give a talk to save his or her life, who can't even have a normal conversation with you at teatime. Even their papers might be jumbled. But they have good conclusions, they have novel approaches to things, so their intelligence saves them. That allows them to climb high in an academic career. But in my current job, if I have good ideas, that wouldn't get me very far by itself.

J: So, do you think that as you go higher up, as a Congressperson or some other government official, then it is your own ideas that start to have more relevance?
A: Members of Congress have to be smart because they are given an unbelievable amount of information every day and they have to process it and understand it and be articulate about it and be able to make a decision on what to do about it. You do have to have a baseline level of mental competency. But, when a Congressperson has a bill, is it actually his or her personal idea that is represented in that bill? Probably not completely. They have a staff person that they have hired to be an intelligent person and network, and they will tell that staff person to look into an issue that they have heard a lot about, like drug abuse. Then that staff person will brainstorm a few ideas, call groups in the area, ask the groups how to best help them, get a few ideas, and report back to the Congressperson. Then the Congressperson will have input again. My point is, when you hear about "Super Committees" and all of these Members sitting in a room, they do know a lot of stuff and they have to hold a lot of interests in their minds at once, but their staff do a lot of the legwork.

J: When you applied for this fellowship, what made you decide to do it? What made you decide to leave academia, and how did you go about doing it?
A: About halfway through my PhD I realized that computer programming was not for me. I am much too social to sit alone in a room for hours. The whole way that research in my subfield is done did not fit my personality and it was becoming a bit too much. I started paying attention to which days really brought me joy, and it turns out that they all had something to do with communicating. I really enjoyed it, and I wondered, what kind of things could I do with this?
The chair of my department said I should look into the policy path. We had a great conversation about how management plays a large, and growing, role in science, and how you need more than just good math skills to be a truly successful scientist. There is a lot of negative talk in some science/math classrooms, looking down upon English majors, and it's like, well, your science isn't really worth much if you can't communicate it!

J: How do you deal with that transition, the backlash, any negative feelings from people? 
A: It was pretty clear to my supervisor that I was not very happy. Finally I just talked to him and told him I didn't want to be an academic. He said that he thought I had the potential to do whatever I wanted, and that it was a decision I had to make, but that he thought I could be, and am, a very good scientist. I felt bad, because he brought me on as a graduate student with the expectation that I would do certain things and publish certain data, and some of the things I agreed to do with him, I actually never finished. It's a bit unfortunate, but ultimately I just had to stick to my guns. I had to do what I had to do to be happier. I came out the other end as a good scientist, and I think I am a good member of the astronomical community, and science community broadly, and that's really all you can ask of someone. 
The other thing you hear is, once you leave, you can never come back.

J: I hear that, but at the same time, that the people who leave don't *want* to come back.
A: It's not true! My housemate did her PhD in Material Science at Cambridge; she's a year ahead of me. Last year, she worked doing education policy for a senator, and this year, she's an Executive Branch Fellow working at the NSF in the Division of Material Science. Now she is looking to transition back into academia. She has kept up with the literature, stayed on the list of peer reviewers on all the journals that she was involved with before. I sort of burned my science bridges by not staying very active in the research astro community this year, but she didn't! She knew she might want to come back, and really cultivated those relationships. She arranged this year to teach a course on science and music at her undergraduate university. Next year she's looking to get an adjunct faculty position, where she can teach science courses, but also a seminar on science and policy, since she has real experience with that. Now, if you go back to academia from policy, are you going to immediately get hired to be a researcher at Harvard or MIT? No, not right out of your policy fellowship. But if you keep your finger in the pot, you can totally re-enter the academic field; you can ensure your policy "diversion" is still in line with your area.

J: That's good to know!
A: It helps with space being a cool thing that everyone wants to know about. And physics is in everything so it’s a little easier to maintain a connection to the physical sciences while you’re exploring careers outside of academia. At least from the federal policy side, because science is so inextricably linked to policy, it would/can be an easier transition back into academia than I’d imagine the transition could be from other career detours.

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