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GeoFellows in D.C.

Geoscientists Sarah Noble, Lydia Olander, Jana Davis, Katie Donnelly (left to right, above) and Melissa D. Ho (photo at right) are 2004-2005 congressional fellows. Top: Naomi Lubick; right: courtesy of Melissa D. Ho.
This year, the five earth science Congressional Science Fellows cover a broad cross-section of the sciences, including planetary geology and even plant biology. The five women are part of a class of more than 30 engineers and scientists who spend a year as staffers on the Hill, in congressional committees or in U.S. senators’ or representatives’ offices.

Nuclear talk

Katie Donnelly, the congressional science fellow for the American Geological Institute (which publishes Geotimes), has chosen to work with Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). Donnelly first introduced herself to Geotimes readers in the October issue, describing her work as an igneous petrologist focusing on mid-ocean ridge basalts. When she started her new job in October, she was immediately thrown into the flurry of congressional activity to pass legislation on the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, “mainly to do with human rights issues,” she says, particularly with regard to detained aliens.

This may be a far cry from geology, Donnelly acknowledges, but her other responsibilities have geoscience connections. She will be tracking security issues that include nuclear weapons, arms control and arms proliferation, and she intends to follow test-ban treaty monitoring and uranium enrichment, for which her isotope geochemistry will be useful.

Space shakeup

Sarah Noble says that since she was 11 years old, she knew she wanted to be an astronaut. Growing up in Big Lake, Minn., Noble says she became a space enthusiast, and she then followed that passion from a geology degree at the University of Minnesota to her doctoral work at Brown University in Rhode Island. She now specializes in space weathering — how planets and satellites without atmospheres to protect them, such as Earth’s moon, change under the onslaught of solar wind particles and other space phenomena.

Although she has not joined NASA’s astronaut corps, Noble says she is looking forward to watching the agency’s metamorphosis over the next year, working as a minority staff member for the Subcommittee on Space, in the House Committee on Science. “It’s going to be an exciting year for space,” says Noble, who is sponsored by the Geological Society of America. “NASA is at a crossroads,” with the Bush administration’s proposals for Mars and beyond and a shakeup of the space administration’s structure and scientific goals (see Geotimes, October 2004).

Sea Changes

As a marine biologist, Jana Davis arrived at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., just in time to study fish populations in rocky intertidal zones during the 1997-1998 El Niño event. Her doctoral thesis research showed how climate changes such as changing currents (California’s reverse directions during El Niño), temperatures and water depths, among other physical characteristics, would affect fish species and sessile organisms such as barnacles.

Davis then spent three years at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center on the Chesapeake Bay, after which she moved to a tenure-track position at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. After a year of teaching oceanography and other subjects at the college’s Mystic Seaport Maritime Studies Program, Davis was accepted as a congressional fellow, sponsored by the American Geophysical Union, a position she had been craving for years, she says. Not only does this fellowship provide a glimpse at professional alternatives to academia, but also, in a year when the Ocean Commission completed its recommendations on ocean policy to Congress and the president, she can bring her expertise on fisheries and oceans to the Hill. Davis works in the office of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).

Soil connections

Plant physiologist Melissa D. Ho, though a biologist, fits under the geosciences rubric because, she says, “I have geology envy.”

A native Southern Californian who grew up in an urban setting, Ho says she is obsessed by crop practices wherever she goes, an interest that has taken her to Kenya and Israel for research. This year, Ho finished her Ph.D. in plant physiology at Pennsylvania State University, following on her master’s work on soils and plant-water interactions at the University of California, Davis, and undergraduate work in environmental systems technology at Cornell University. “You can just study the plants or just study the soil,” Ho says, but she prefers a “whole systems” approach.

Ho, who has yet to select which congressional office to serve, will start on the Hill in January as the congressional fellow sponsored by the Agronomy, Crop and Soil Science Societies of America. “You want to use your knowledge,” she says, moving it out of the lab and into the real world.

Applying science

Lydia Olander, a biogeochemist, has studied soils in Hawaii and Brazil, an outgrowth of her training in forestry. While working on her doctoral thesis at Stanford University, Olander tracked nitrogen and phosphorus cycling in Hawaiian soils using microbial methods and isotope tracers. Her post-doctoral work at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s new Department of Global Ecology, based at Stanford, helped to lay down some baseline research to correlate forest soils in Brazil and biogeochemical conditions with logging and satellite imagery.

Olander, whose undergraduate work focused on environmental science and policy, has been interested in the congressional fellowship since she began her graduate work. She now works for Sen. Joseph Leiberman (D-Conn.), sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and says she will be focusing partly on climate change issues. Like her colleagues, Olander says that she will miss science but is looking forward to the applied aspects of science policy.

Noting her colleagues’ breadth, communications skills and specialties, from space science to oceans to pure research, Olander says that the congressional fellows program “picked relevant people” for “the issues Congress is dealing with today.”

Naomi Lubick


"The Geoscience Vote: Funding and the fate of NASA," Geotimes, October 2004

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