More to science: working as Senior Advisor for Food and Life Sciences

There’s more to science than being a scientist! In this blog, Elizabeth Stulberg tells of her role in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy as part of our ‘Science > Careers’ series.

ElizabethStulbergHow did you originally get interested in science, and what kept you interested through graduate school?

I fell in love with biology in middle and high school, but it was in college that I found I had a real knack for remembering important details, from Punnett squares to phylogenetics.

When I told my undergraduate senior thesis advisor that I wanted to learn more, she suggested graduate school. I thought it would be more learning, and it was, but learning what’s already known is vastly different from trying to learn something new, especially when you have to come up with a new process for learning each new thing.

As a graduate student, I needed to take an ill-defined question or idea and turn it into a coherent project with clear goals and measurable, achievable outcomes.

Beyond learning the nitty-gritty technical skills needed for (flawless!) Western blots and confocal micrographs, I had to figure out when to use a Western blot at all and when some other technique would be better, when I needed to learn new skills and when to collaborate with scientists who already possessed them, when to pursue a result that seems to be going nowhere and when to let it go.

In other words, it’s the critical thinking skills needed not only to learn how to do something, but to figure out how to learn how to do something.

Becoming familiar with scientific techniques is part of the PhD process, but a much more significant part is wrangling a million tiny ideas into an achievable process, all while keeping an eye on the larger goals of the scientific community.

Why did you choose science policy as a career, and how did you first get started?

At first, I wasn’t even sure what science policy was. Is it creating policies based on current science and scientific principals for all manner of topics? Or is it creating policies, with an eye to politics, that impact the scientific process? It turns out it’s both, and I was hooked.

It felt like so much of my scientific training had prepared me perfectly for this career. Every day, I use those idea-wrangling, critical thinking skills that I honed in graduate school, which is what I always loved the most.

I began my science policy career as a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Congressional Fellow sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology working in the office of Congresswoman Louise Slaughter. And my first task?

Summarizing new poultry slaughter rules coming out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Poultry slaughter??? I got my PhD in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at Yale University working on plants and soil microbes.

What do plants and soil have to do with chickens? Well, nothing really, but my PhD training enabled me to read this 40+ page technical document and pick out the important nuggets of information (see what I did there?).

My PhD gave me the confidence to analyze technical documents carefully, and so when there was something I didn’t understand, I felt empowered to ask.

Perhaps even more important, my PhD gave me the confidence to analyze technical documents carefully, and so when there was something I didn’t understand, I felt empowered to ask.

I got on the phone with USDA’s congressional relations office, and they helped me find the expert I needed to speak with to answer my questions. In the end, I was able to create a one-page summary of the new policies and their impacts with respect to Representative Slaughter’s priorities.

How do you spend a day in your current job?

As Senior Advisor for Food and Life Sciences in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, I do a lot of reading, a lot of writing, and a lot of talking, both on the phone and in person.

I synthesize new information from scientific literature, government reports, people I meet, and other media, and I craft policies and proposals solidly based on science to meet the needs of the Federal scientific community, ultimately for the benefit of people everywhere.

Currently, I’m working on two large projects, one focused on unleashing the potential of microbiome science and the other aiming to improve research and education for food and agriculture.

Just as in grad school, the key is taking a massive, amorphous glut of information and turning it into a coherent project with specific, achievable goals. Once again, the critical thinking skills I learned in grad school, such as which projects to spend time on and which techniques or collaborations to pursue, proved most useful.

What makes this a science job, and how does it compare to academic or bench science?

A scientific background is extremely valuable in policy, whether it’s used to promote science, like microbiome research, or to critically assess a technical issue, like poultry slaughter.

A scientific background is extremely valuable in policy, whether it’s used to promote science, like microbiome research, or to critically assess a technical issue, like poultry slaughter.

My favorite part of being a researcher in academia was learning new things while being surrounded by interesting and intelligent people, but I was frustrated that luck seemed to play such an outsized role in success as compared to sound project design and hard work.

Also, I loved the idea of using science to create a better world, but it was easy to lose track of how my small project could make a difference.

Working in science policy, I use many of the skills I honed as a researcher to address important issues nationally and globally, and I can see the direct connection between what I do and how people will benefit.

There are policy fellowships available, such as those through the AAAS and others, that put scientists in policy positions throughout the government, and I would encourage anyone interested in policy to apply.

Many fellows return to academia after a year or two away, but many also stick around, making important contributions to policy and to scientific advancement.


Do you have a job in science that you love? Know someone who can’t stop talking about their science career? Comment below or email me at dana.berry@biomedcentral.com if you’re interested in participating in our series. And join the conversation by using the #moretoscience hashtag on twitter.

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