AAAS Congressional Science Fellowships and Mass Media Fellowships: Insider Tips From Current and Former Fellows

Dec 05, 2012

Yesterday at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting, I had the pleasure of attending a panel discussion on professional fellowship programs sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The AAAS Congressional Science and Engineering Fellows Program provides support for scientists and engineers to spend a year on Capitol Hill working in Congressional offices. The fellowship program is a cooperative effort of approximately 30 national scientific and engineering societies that has operated for more than 35 years. Some of the duties of Congressional Fellows include crafting legislation, background research, speechwriting, meeting with constituents and lobbyists, and organizing hearings.  Also featured was the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship, which annually provides a graduate or undergraduate student in science or engineering the opportunity to spend 10 weeks working in a newsroom. Mass Media Fellows have worked as reporters, editors, researchers and production assistants at such media outlets as National Public Radio (NPR), the Los Angeles Times, Voice of America and Scientific American.

Two Congressional Science Fellows on the panel, Kevin Reed and Erica Bickford, discussed what inspired them to apply and transition from academic research to policy work in Washington, DC. “I started my Ph.D. knowing I wanted to work in policy when I finished. I read about this fellowship when I was an undergraduate,” said Reed, who completed his Ph.D. in Atmospheric and Space Science at the University of Michigan in January 2012. Bickford was less focused on a policy career as a student, but presented a very strong application for the fellowship. “There was a policy component to my dissertation research on the impacts of air quality on transportation,” said Bickford, who recently completed her Ph.D. in Environment and Resources at the University of Wisconsin.

When asked how to best prepare for a Congressional Science Fellowship, Reed recommended participating in opportunities like the American Meteorological Society’s (AMS) Summer Policy Colloquium, a ten-day immersion course in atmospheric policy. Bickford recommended that aspiring fellows stay abreast of current events and science-related legislation. “The fellowship requires a quick learning curve,” said Bickford. “As a fellow, you are considered as having expertise in all areas of science, and therefore you will be asked to weigh in on scientific topics you may know little about.”

The two other panelists, Jessica Morrison and Dee Rossiter, discussed their experience as AAAS Mass Media Fellows. Morrison, a Ph.D. student in Civil & Environmental Engineering at the University of Notre Dame, spent her fellowship this past summer at The Chicago Tribune, where she reported on health science and policy. “I applied for the fellowship because I found I was much more excited about communicating science than working in a lab,” said Morrison. While a student, she began writing, blogging and utilizing social media, something she recommends to other aspiring fellows interested in science journalism.

When Rossiter heard about the Mass Media Fellowship, she felt it was a perfect opportunity to pursue her two passions, science and communications, and strove to develop a competitive resume and application for the fellowship. As a 2011 Fellow, Rossiter worked for Voice Of America, a U.S. State Department media organization that provides news in 43 languages to countries outside the U.S. After earning her Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she studied cloud microphysics, Rossiter landed a job as Program Director of the AAAS Mass Media Program.

One member of the audience asked for the panelists’ honest opinions on working with a Congress in constant deadlock. Reed assured us that despite the political unknowns, policy work is very rewarding. “What you don’t see every day in the news is that there are a lot of smart people doing good work behind the scenes.” However, policy work is very different than academic research. “As a Ph.D. student, you’ve worked for five, six, maybe seven years toward a specific goal of completing one project. In policy work, while you may have a common goal, nothing is set is stone, and you have to be prepared for that,” said Reed.

© Victoria Johnson 2012, all rights reserved.