The Sociopolitical Evolution of a Scientist: Incorporating Advocacy into My Graduate School Experience

August 31, 2018 | 9:19 am
Architect of the Capitol
Alex Hruska
Bioengineering PhD student, Brown University

During September of 2016, I was excited to begin my bioengineering master’s program in Boston, home to the world’s largest community of biomedical researchers. But on November 8th, the US political landscape abruptly transformed, and suddenly my research studying how cancer spreads throughout the body felt microscopic. The aftermath of the 2016 election forced me to examine my identity; I saw how the wave of anti-LGBT rhetoric and violence left my community feeling unsafe. Raised by a family of immigrants, I saw my lab mate barred from entering the country after visiting her family in Iran. And as a scientist, I saw how the spread of misinformation caused public distrust in science, permeating our highest levels of government.

I’ve always believed that science could and should have an impact on people’s lives. My interest in science was sparked by my cardiologist, who explained how engineers built the device that allowed her to visualize my heart’s electrical pathways, find my arrhythmia, and fix it. But in this climate, I worried that scientific research would not have the same impact on society – that our knowledge would not be reflected in our policies.

Finding my community: early career scientists making an impact

Amidst the barrage of misinformation and climate change deniers in positions of power, I knew that input from scientists was needed, but wasn’t sure how I could make an impact as a graduate student. I started attending MIT’s Science Policy Initiative (SPI), and discussions to plan SPI’s annual visit to Capitol Hill during STEM on The Hill Day gave me a sense of purpose. We were there for the same reason – to ensure scientists have a role in policy-making.

On the hill, I met with staffers from Senator Coons’ office to advocate against proposed cuts to the National Institutes of Health budget and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s SeaGrant program. Fortunately, the senator’s office agreed, and we asked Senator Coons to circulate a dear-colleague letter to gather wide support in opposing these cuts. A small but important endeavor, this ask made the meeting effective and opened the door for future dialogue. Overall, this experience was valuable training in communicating my science to policy-minded people.

Science advocacy on campus

I realized effective advocacy and communication were skills most graduate students were interested in, but didn’t know where to find. I learned of a grant offered by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) to expand community-based science advocacy. I was awarded a Science for Public Good Fund to implement a science advocacy workshop series at Northeastern University.

Planning a three-part workshop by myself was no easy task, and I suffered from a serious case of impostor syndrome – there were moments where I felt unprepared to lead a workshop on advocacy. However, the mentorship provided by the staff at UCS helped me craft an effective event. They connected me with resources and experts in science advocacy, some of whom served as speakers. Importantly, the workshop helped pull together a group of graduate students whose passion for science-backed decision making formed the base of a new advocacy community at Northeastern. I realized it’s never too early to reach out and find a group of graduate students with similar passions to help initiate more formal skill-based programming efforts.

Citizen-scientists: Re-thinking graduate education and the roles of scientists outside the lab

Planning the workshop would not have been possible without leaning on my network of science communicators. Be that as it may, more structured university-driven science advocacy resources are needed at the student level. Likewise, while my experience in science advocacy took place in the context of my university, graduate programs must place more curricular emphasis on communicating the real-world implications of the important science being generated by their graduates.

For now, us graduate students need to reclaim our graduate school experiences to be that source of change. We need to push our universities and fellow scientists to think about how their scientific findings impact society, and more generally how their scientific training is valuable to the policy-making process. Building on existing university support systems to create student groups with funding and meeting space helps establish a local network. University government liaison offices are often willing to support student-driven efforts, and meeting with state representatives can be an easy way to start conversations and build long-lasting relationships with policy-makers.

While we as scientists gather information, as citizens and inhabitants of the world, we have a responsibility to ask “How is my work being used in the world?” STEM graduates are asking this question now, more than ever. To support early career scientists stepping into these roles, we need to support motivated graduate students in building networks, seeking out real-world experiences, and demonstrating to universities the importance of supporting these efforts.