Washington DC science policy trips

The Harvard Graduate Student Science Policy Group does a number of very cool things.  I’m on the executive board so I may be a bit partial, but you have to admit that a focus on opening the window into the world of policy for science phds is pretty cool.  Throughout the year, we put on monthly faculty chats and a J-term course (details).  But perhaps the coolest once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing we do is offer an annual trip to Washington DC to meet with policy groups.  This year we visited (and excuse the listing) the White House Office of Science Technology and Policy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the House Minority Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Health, the National Academy of Sciences, the Department of State Office of the Science Technology Advisor, NASA headquarters, and the Department of Defense Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research.  It was an incredible trip.

If I had to describe a theme of the trip I would say democracy – and I know that sounds cheesy so let me explain.  All of the people that we meet with have many obstacles to using their point of view to influence policy.  As scientists, it is their job to present knowledge and then step back and let policy makers decide the course of action.  We heard over and over again that agencies (such as the EPA) cannot approach the hill and say “This is what you need to be thinking about and working on.”  That would be lobbying.  They have to wait until they are charged with analyzing a problem before they can study it and this is hard for scientist to hear.  We think, “Look, I’ve done all of the work and I’ve got the statistical values and the peer review to show that I am RIGHT.  Now let’s make policy based on my correct work.”  But that isn’t how it works in a democracy.  You may disagree with other people, but you still have to work with them.  This was brought up in literally every meeting we had.  And it seemed to me that for a scientist working in the policy sphere, you have to love the mess of democracy more than the order of science.  I mean, hey, dictatorships are efficient, and what scientist doesn’t love efficiency?  It takes a special breed of scientist to try to use order to influence chaos.

The other theme that flowed through the trip was the importance of communicating science.  It seems like this message is practically slapping me in the face every where I turn lately.  In a meeting with Bill Nye the science guy (another awesome Science Policy Group event) he said the most important thing for scientist to learn is how to tell a story and how to use english.  This was mirrored by all of the people that we met with but perhaps most emphatically by Dr. Joel Scheraga, the Senior Advisor for Climate Adaption at the EPA.  His opinion is that the most important step to take as a graduate student scientist interested in policy is to develop the skill of communicating science in plan understandable English.  He also made it clear that decisions are made everyday and your science needs to be a part of it even though scientists want to wait until the science is done before presenting or discussing it.  It can’t wait until you are done and so scientists need to get comfortable discussing science while it is still in the process and get comfortable discussing science with everyone.  His thought was that all scientists need to be involved with policy in a bottom-up approach by getting the public and policy makers aware of the problem, which relies in a large part on science communication. He suggested that you need to increase awareness, change behavior, and then you can think about how to focus behavior to address the outcome of concern.  This pretty much sums up the big take home message for me at this point in my career.  I’ve got a few years yet in my phd to practice communicating and discussing my science before it is done.  Hell, I’ll get a good shot at that last one this summer when I present at the Evolution and the Cycad conferences!

I also had a good time making a little photo project of the trip.  Hope you enjoy it!

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Thoughts on science education in Boston

The first task of the new superintendent of schools needs to be to ride the T from Forest Hills to Harvard Square.

She should buy a monster energy drink at Forest hills and a tall frappe latte in the Starbucks outside the Harvard station. On the ride, the new sup should take notes on shoes and what riders use to keep themselves busy from ereaders and newspapers to candy crush and social media.

He should be asked to report on advertisements lining the wooden walls of the rundown orange line and hanging above the brightly colored festive seats of the red line. Perhaps she should analyze trash from each train like an anthropologist.

Maybe then our new superintendent will get a sense of the divide facing students who may think sports stardom or American Idol are more accessible than the technology boom happening a T-ride away.

For the benefit of our students and our state, she – and we — need to understand the orange-red divide.

Tutoring at an area juvenile jail and seeing the stark contrast between life on the orange line and life on the red line gives me a new perspective of the problems in STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math). The current fad is to tack failures on to the approach – focusing on facts that do not connect to students’ real lives and not on STEM’s inherent creativity and imagination. Perhaps, however, there is an even larger issue.

On my last Orange trip, I sat next to a teenager wearing a faded T-shirt and across from a young woman loudly talking into her cell phone about a court appearance. The woman near the door wore a janitor’s uniform and carried her laundry. A young man in hard-toed construction boots drank an energy drink. The advertisements, reminders to get yearly checkups, are mostly ignored as passengers are lost in games and Facebook.

Transfer to the red line and everyone is in business gear, heels and dressy wool coats. Red-liners read newspapers and paperbacks and sit under advertisements for Harvard extension courses while drinking from reusable coffee mugs and water bottles. Red line riders appear one step higher on Maslow’s pyramid of needs and the comforts of their daily lives are clearly displayed.

As a high school drop out turned Harvard PhD student, I have a drive to destroy personally-installed educational barriers and STEM education obviously has a problem of perception; the perception that it is not accessible.

We know Kim Kardashian is a real person yet it does not occur to us that her lifestyle could be our reality. My concern is that in the same way going to Harvard or MIT or having a white color job in the tech field does not feel tangible to many of our students. We cannot imagine a daily commute via private jet and perhaps many cannot imagine a daily commute on the red line. Perception can put limits on reality, exactly like blinders on a horse.

Erasing the lines between our poorest communities and our booming tech industry needs to become a priority and I challenge the new superintendent of schools to work to remove those blinders and make orange-red transfers easier. I ask her to make a concentrated effort to connect our world-class universities and innovators with students from all communities, making each a part of the other’s reality.

Without showing the promise and excitement in STEM fields, we are losing some of our communities’ most promising minds. I know first hand that students find other outlets for their drive, potentially even illicit.

We need to catch them before it’s too late and ride the train together.

I’m preparing for another trip down to Montgomery Botanical Center in Miami in the hopes of catching the Caribbean Zamia in pollination.  At this stage in my phd, I feel like I have a million ideas and it’s hard to realize that I can’t do all of them.  So hard, in fact that I often can’t let some ideas go!  No matter what idea I end up following through to the end though, I know one thing; I have to catch the plants when they are coning.  Each species will only be in cone once a year and even if I don’t know exactly what direction I am taking, I can’t waste a whole year.  So, I’ll be heading down in two weeks to collect volatiles and tissue for RNA from all of the Caribbean species that I find in cone.  The native Florida species, Zamia integrifolia should be in cone and I’m hoping to see their weevil pollinators, Rhopalotria slossoni.  I’m super excited to go back to Montgomery Botanical Center.  It’s a cycad (or palm, if you’re into that kind of stuff) scientist’s dream.  Here’s a couple of pictures from my last trip down when I was working with Zamia furfuracea.



Probably the easiest (laziest) way to introduce myself and get this blog started is to give you my personal and previous research statement from my NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.  Here you go:

My mother tells the story that I left a note saying, “I couldn’t resist the adventure” when I ran away from my Georgia home, a 17-year-old high school drop out. I no longer remember and I don’t think I believe her–it just seems too romantic. She was right, however; my life since has certainly been an adventure. I rented my first apartment 1,000 miles away near Tulsa, traveled the Southern, Western, and Midwestern backroads in my 77 VW bus, and spent two years living in a tipi in a remote corner of Michigan. I milked goats and tended an apple orchard in the mountains of California far off of the electric grid and lived in a small coastal Mexican village without road access. I got my high school diploma at an adult school alongside an 86-year-old woman, her pregnant 22-year-old granddaughter and a handful of prisoners. I later sat on the Chamber of Commerce for a small California town where I was awarded a $15,000 state grant to create a non-profit. My adventure was and continues to be fueled by insatiable curiosity and a deep desire to improve options for those who believe they have none.

After leaving high school, I began a series of agricultural jobs, working my way from general labor and internships to managing a local farmers market. There I started a non-profit, which is still running, that brought produce from local farmers to low-income families, to the benefit of both. I enjoyed working outside and learning about low environmental impact food production, with dirt in my fingernails and excitement in my brain. I was interested in crop-insect relationships and collected books about pollinators, herbivores, and natural predators of plant pests. Each new insight, however, led to more questions and eventually drove me to return to school for a Sustainable Agriculture Certificate at California’s Santa Rosa Junior College.

During my first semester, a professor recommended me for a position at the University of California Cooperative Extension Office. For the next two years I helped study plant-environment interactions as a senior agriculture research assistant, focusing on pathology in the viticulture department and entomology in the integrated pest management department. We worked closely with local farmers and set up field trials examining plant growth, pest control, and damage thresholds for herbivores and plant pathogens. The overarching goals of Extension Offices are to keep local farmers apprised of best practices resulting from our research and to present findings to the general public. In this vein, I reached out to the local Nursery Growers Association when an exotic pest transported through horticultural nurseries threatened California agricultural and horticultural exports. I prepared a talk on the invasive light brown apple moth that covered current research and policy and presented it at the quarterly regional meeting. The research into agroecology and the manipulation of plant-insect interactions lit a fire in me. I spent my days studying the ecological interactions that had always fascinated me, and found that what I discovered was of immediate use in the real world. I was electrified!

A soil and plant nutrition class followed by a plant science course confirmed that I had fallen in love with science. I couldn’t get enough and changed my goal from a two-year community college certificate to a bachelor’s degree. To catch up on the years I had missed, I had to take entry-level courses, many of which did not qualify for college credit. In these classes, I met people like me: older nontraditional students who had decided to make their day-to-day lives harder in order to reach a goal that was still many years away. I was inspired by my classmates and have used every opportunity since to encourage and remind others that any door can be opened no matter how distant or out of reach it seems. I volunteered for two years at a youth homeless shelter in Berkeley and helped teach chemistry and biology at a high school for students who would be the first generation of their families to attend college. I have been fortunate to be blessed with many dedicated and passionate mentors, and I want to pass on what they have given me: excitement, confidence, and a sense of ownership towards this world and our knowledge about its processes. On top of that I can add what my personal experience has taught me–the knowledge that it is never too late and that no mistake is crippling.

While still at junior college, I became involved with MESA (Math, Engineering, and Science Achievement), a program for educationally disadvantaged students. Outside of my regular class work, I presented a poster at the yearly MESA conference detailing experiments into bioremediation of wastewater contaminants. Realizing that the background research that I had done could be of practical use, I wrote a popular science article for HobbyFarms Magazine, “Soil Contaminants: A Farm Buyer’s Primer.” Again, life had reinforced that public knowledge about ecological interactions can be useful in tangible real world ways.

Upon transfer to UC Berkeley, I immediately began seeking research opportunities. My interests in sustainable agriculture and entomology found a perfect fit in the Altieri lab, where I investigated floral resource provisioning by natural parasitoids of grape herbivores. My work specifically asked which flower nectar sources increase the fecundity and longevity of Anagrus parasitoids. I directed this parasitoid longevity experiment for one year and trained and supervised three female undergraduates in insect colony maintenance and diet preparation. Watching these tiny wasps, I couldn’t help but wonder what underlying cellular processes allow them to find food and prey in the microscopic world they inhabit.

During my second semester, I sought an additional research position that would allow me to ask these kinds of questions. This exceeded the independent study and research units that UC Berkeley normally allows and so I petitioned for an exemption. I joined the plant evolutionary biology lab of Dr. Chelsea Specht and started by assisting PhD candidate Tanya Renner in order to acquire the skills necessary to create and carry out my own research topic in molecular mechanisms of plant-insect interactions. Alongside Tanya, I learned how to perform RNA extractions, synthesize cDNA, PCR, and Sanger sequence, all while exploring expression profiles of chitinase genes used in plant carnivory by the Venus flytrap Dionaea. This experience opened my eyes to the power of gene expression. Molecular mechanisms underlie all of the interactions that had intrigued my lifelong curiosity and gene expression seemed to be the key to identifying the how and the why.

My senior year revolved around working on my independent senior honors research thesis in the Specht lab. Pursuing my interests in the molecular mechanisms that underlie plant-insect interactions, I characterized the gene expression profile of alternative oxidase during pollination-dependent thermogenesis in the Australian cycad Macrozamia lucida. During this time, I was also responsible for training another undergraduate in molecular lab work. In choosing the undergraduate, I sought out an alternative path student who was returning to college five years after flunking out, and whom I am pleased to say was recently accepted to medical school. I presented my results in a talk at the UC Berkeley Honors Symposium and later to a group of cycad biologists. My findings of a unique expression profile as compared to other thermogenic plants and an exciting amino acid sequence indicative of a distinctive protein structure led to independent funding for Illumina sequencing of thermogenic transcriptomes. Using the assembled transcriptomes, I was able to identify multiple endogenous controls and to further assess thermogenic gene expression. My work also inspired cycad pollination biologist Dr. Irene Terry from the University of Utah to travel to Australia and collect samples from multiple individuals at closer time points across the thermogenic cycle. Even though I had moved away from Berkeley at the time these new samples were received in the Specht lab, I returned in August to complete the research and am currently preparing the results for submission to Evolution.

Upon graduation, Dr. Specht hired me as a staff research associate and lab manager, and in this position I worked to resolve the previously recalcitrant Costus (Costaceae) phylogeny. My results provided the first evidence of an evolutionary toggle between pollination syndromes in this group. I presented the results in a poster at the International Monocots meeting this summer and have prepared a manuscript for submission to Plant Systematics. While pursuing this research, I continued to mentor the alternative path student that I had recruited as well as a female freshman. I also worked closely with a visiting Brazilian scholar, Thiago André, to characterize life history traits and compare diversification rates between neotropical Costaceae genera. These works comprise a large component of his PhD thesis and are in preparation for submission to the Journal of Biogeography and Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.

In February, my continuing adventure led me to Naomi Pierce’s lab at Harvard University. As a research technician and lab manager I continued phylogenetics research, initiating a targeted enrichment capture technique that will use lab generated PCR baits to capture molecular markers from genomic DNA for high throughput sequencing; a faster, cheaper means of generating large amounts of phylogenetic data. I also mentored a female high school student over the summer in lab work and phylogenetic methods and am tutoring at Boston’s Juvenile Justice Department of Youth Services. In September, I started my PhD studies in the Pierce lab. Dr. Pierce specializes in species interactions and is a world authority on Lycaenidae butterflies, which contains the Eumaeus herbivore that I will study. This setting, combined with my prior research experience, allows me to pursue my graduate research on the evolution and molecular mechanisms of plant-insect relationships. My lifelong dedication to this topic, and my history of finding and disseminating unique research results place me in an excellent position to produce work of strong intellectual merit in the fields of evolution and species interactions.

From high school dropout to Harvard University PhD student, I am in a unique position to inspire others to break through educational barriers and my dedication to mentoring, volunteering, and teaching shows my commitment to broader impacts of this kind. Similarly, my dedication to expanding the impact of research into the public sphere has and will continue to be an integral part of my approach to science. My graduate work is part of this exciting adventure and will lead me to my goal of a university professorship. Throughout my career, I will continue to incorporate public outreach about real world applications of scientific research and encourage and promote alternative path and underprivileged students because beyond my scientific interests, that is my past and my passion.