A GSPA Winner Learns that D.C. is “a lot more like Veep than House of Cards” and Explores a Newfound Career Path

A guest post by Anna Groves (Michigan State University), 2017 ESA Graduate Student Policy Award recipient. This year’s six award winners traveled to Washington, D.C. at the end of April for policy experience and training. 


Giorgia Auteri (University of Michigan), Christopher Tyrrell (Milwaukee Public Museum), and GSPA recipient Anna Groves (Michigan State University) outside the U.S. Capitol Building

As a fifth year Ph.D. student, I spend a lot of time thinking about my future. I adore science and have loved being a part of the ecology community, but working as a researcher has always left me wanting something more. While conducting my graduate research, I’ve come to value my distractions in teaching biology to non-majors, volunteering at science outreach events, and writing for public audiences. I’ve found that I both enjoy and excel at communicating science to diverse audiences, and I hope to make a career of it. I applied to the ESA GSPA in hopes of getting my feet wet in a new sector of science communication: science policy. I joked to my friends that this 3-day DC visit would be the deciding factor for whether my career ambitions would lie in policy rather than a more traditional public science outreach role. I was not disappointed.

I flew out to DC a few days early to spend time with local friends, march for science, and check out the Smithsonian museums. Our GSPA program began Monday evening with dinner with the award winners and some ESA staff members, where I enjoyed the surprise opportunity to talk the ear off the ESA Communications Officer (hi Liza!) and hear what her role is like. I also very much appreciated the opportunity to get to know the other award winners before diving into the next day’s work, since I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

Our next day was a crash course in all things science policy with the few dozen other scientists also participating in the Biological and Ecological Sciences Coalition Congressional Visits Day. We had an epic Q&A session with a panel of ecologists who have moved to Washington in various roles—now working at AAAS, Senate offices, NOAA, and (formerly) the White House. I asked way too many questions to try and figure out if these were lives I would want to lead. Recurring themes were definitely fake it til you make it and, as cliché as it is, practice makes perfect. My absolute favorite tidbit came from an ecologist-turned-Senate staffer: “It’s a lot more like Veep than like House of Cards.” I am, perhaps not surprisingly, obsessed with Veep.

Anyway, after a quick lunch, a whirlwind training on how to ask a congressional office for $8 billion for NSF in fiscal year 2018, and a truly DC-caliber happy hour and dinner experience… we were ready for our day on “the Hill.”

I woke up around 5 a.m. to practice my pitch, sit around in my swanky hotel bath robe, and try not to let myself get so nervous as to actually vomit. What if I screw up and Congress cuts the National Science Foundation? (Which of course would not have been my fault, but such are anxious brains.) I ironed my borrowed business attire and brand new shoes (ecologists rarely—okay, never—dress in business attire) and forced myself out the door. The state of my nerves rivaled the morning of my graduate comprehensive exams.

Our first meeting was a “Constituent Coffee” event with Senator Joe Donnelly (D-IN). Our first and only face-to-face meeting with a congressman, I was immediately put at ease by the Senator’s charisma and his staffer’s willingness to chat with us. After we exhausted our NSF pitch, the atmosphere was relaxed enough that I asked the staffer about her own career path and current role. Our eight back-to-back meetings that followed were an absolute breeze, and were a ton of fun. We met staffers in hallways, in board rooms, and even in Speaker Paul Ryan’s personal office! I think I successfully achieved not-looking-like-a-tourist… most of the time. After a day of meetings, we all reconvened at a nearby bar to swap stories. My new GSPA friends immediately asked for my report: Would I be pursuing a career in science policy? Or in their words, simply, “So are you in?”

I’m in.

We toasted my newfound career path as we all, exhausted, enjoyed our last night in the District— for now, at least.

I suspect the majority of the scientists participating in the BESC Congressional Visits Day were career scientists hoping to learn how to better engage with their representatives— as scientists— and I know this program allowed them to achieve this goal. But I viewed the program through a different lens. Is this a career for me? How do I do this? I am endlessly grateful that this program answered these questions so thoroughly in such a short time. Perhaps the most valuable aspects of the program were the new connections I’ve made and opportunities I’ve learned about. I’ve long known about the Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Fellowship for graduate students, and the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship for post-grads, but I had always assumed these two prestigious fellowships were just about the only way forward for a science Ph.D. who wants to transition into policy. After these few days in DC, I now have an arsenal of ideas on how to move forward. I can’t wait to wrap up my dissertation and start on the next science policy opportunity!

Here’s to $8 billion for NSF in FY2018!