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Congressional science fellows: Broadening horizons

With much of the nation paying close attention to issues relating to climate, energy and the environment, it is a good time to get more science to Capitol Hill, to help advise policy-makers on these key issues. Fortunately, a new crop of earth science congressional science fellows has arrived, eager to put their backgrounds to work as staffers for senators, representatives and committees. The five earth science fellows (out of 34 total scientists and engineers) span disciplines from climatology to oceanography to soil science, but share a common interest in finding sustainable solutions to an impending national energy crisis and to climate change, as well as to broadening their own scientific and political horizons.

Four of the earth science congressional science fellows currently working on the Hill are (left to right): James Bradbury, climatologist; Craig Cooper, oceanographer; Mark Wenzel, planetary scientist; Allyson Anderson, petrophysicist. Photograph is by Carolyn Gramling.

Before arriving in Washington, D.C., as the Geological Society of America’s congressional science fellow, oceanographer Craig Cooper spent the last six years at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) in Idaho Falls. “I was an oceanographer in Idaho,” Cooper says, laughing. He sees that unlikely juxtaposition, however, as just the first step to diversifying his career.

While a doctoral student in oceanography at Texas A&M University in College Station, Cooper investigated the interactions of microbes with metals and nutrients in shallow marine sediments, earning his Ph.D. in 1998. From there, he soon moved on to INL, where he began working on biogeochemical cycling and microbiology in the shallow, unsaturated zone above the water table.

Over the past few years, however, he says that he has become “more of an energy systems and environmental person,” turning his attention to the more wide-ranging question of how to use natural resources while minimizing impact on the environment. Now, Cooper says, he is interested in “looking more at technology and policy, and how to go about solving the energy problems the country faces in an environmentally sustainable way.”

As a fellow in Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) office, Cooper says he expects to work on “climate change, climate change and climate change.” The task, he says, will be finding a way to join the often conflict-ridden perspectives of the energy and environmental sectors to create comprehensive legislation on climate change, and he hopes that he will be able to help develop a bill that “really addresses climate change in a serious way.”

Climate change also motivated James Bradbury, who is sponsored by the American Meteorological Society, to bridge the worlds of science and politics. “Climate becomes such a politicized issue,” Bradbury says. “And when you talk to people … about climate, they’ll say, ‘Well, what do we do about it?’” The politicization of issues such as climate, energy and the environment has been an interest throughout his academic career, Bradbury says. “So it seemed like a good direction to go for me.”

Having recently defended his Ph.D. dissertation on how volcanic aerosols affect the East Asian monsoon, Bradbury now “wants to get more involved in policy,” he says. He chose to work with Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) from Washington’s First Congressional District, who Bradbury describes as “one of the few members of Congress who really runs on energy and the environment.”

During his fellowship, Bradbury says he plans to focus on the Apollo Energy project, legislation sponsored by Inslee that proposes to reduce reliance on Middle East oil, while also creating jobs and addressing environmental concerns. “I would love to contribute to efforts that put forth more sustainable energy solutions for this country,” and to be “part of getting something good proposed, and seeing it through,” Bradbury says.

Making a real contribution to society is also what drew Mark Wenzel, the American Geophysical Union’s congressional science fellow, to the program. “I wanted a career where I could be a generalist, and also a career where I could be of service,” he says.

Wenzel has spent much of the past few years investigating the inner workings of Mars, completing his Ph.D. in earth and planetary science from the University of California in Berkeley in December with a study on martian mantle dynamics. Now, he says, he wants to expand that narrow focus.

To that end, Wenzel says, “I picked an office where I can work on a broad range of issues.” He has chosen to work with Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), where he will contend with issues from energy and the environment to defense to national competitiveness and its related economic issues.

Allyson Anderson has already had a fairly diverse career. So far, Anderson, the William L. Fisher Congressional Fellow sponsored by the American Geological Institute (which publishes Geotimes), has had a professional career as a string bass player as well as a geologist. It’s all part of what she calls her “winding path” to the Hill (see Geotimes, November 2006).

With undergraduate degrees in both music and geology and a master’s degree in geology from Indiana University in Indianapolis, Anderson has also worked with the Kansas Geological Survey in Lawrence and ExxonMobil in Houston, Texas. As a professional geologist, she dug into geological problems ranging from natural gas hazards to petroleum exploration and development.

Although Anderson says her focus has narrowed while working in the oil industry, becoming a congressional fellow is giving her the opportunity to become a generalist again — something she “craves,” Anderson says. “There’s an increasing interest in industry to hire a jack of all trades,” she says. “It’s not enough that you’re a geologist, you have to think like a geophysicist, a stratigrapher, a structural geologist. It’s really important to be broad.”

In the coming year, Anderson will be working with the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, where she’ll be contributing to at least three key issues: biofuels, carbon sequestration and the reduction of gas venting and flaring during oil exploration. “Every day I get some new nuggets,” she says. “It’s a good year to be a geoscience fellow.”

As a scientist who both delves into the tiny world of microbes and scales back to see the “whole picture” of their ecological environment, Marcy Gallo says she hopes to bring to the world of politics her “ability to get into the details and then take them and put them on the bigger scale. That’s what you really need to do for federal policy — it’s not just the best science, but how it will impact society,” she says.

Microbial ecologist Marcy Gallo will begin her fellowship in January in the office of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.). Photograph is courtesy of Marcy Gallo.

Gallo, who is sponsored by the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America and the Soil Science Society of America, pursued her doctoral work at the University of New Mexico, where she studied how ultraviolet radiation affects decomposition in arid desert soils. After defending her thesis in October, she will begin her fellowship in January in the office of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), working on climate change issues and alternative energy.

The appeal of working on the Hill, Gallo says, is that it will offer her a “testing ground” to explore the world of policy and politics, while also giving her a chance to better understand how science is utilized in policy-making. “It all started from a conversation I’d had with other graduate students,” she says. “We were just talking about the fact that no one was really educating scientists about how to take their information to the next phase — how to use science to impact society.”

Defining how scientists can advise, contribute to the government and help shape policy is an interest shared by all five fellows. Beyond the goals he has for the coming year, Bradbury, for example, says that he hopes to discover that he can use his scientific background in myriad ways, applying his problem-solving skills to challenges that might not have “an obvious science fix.”

Wenzel agrees. “I think it is critical that scientists be engaged as citizens,” he says. “They do bring special skills and special knowledge.”

Carolyn Gramling

"A Winding Path to the Energy Hill," Geotimes, November 2006

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