By Libby Barksdale, PhD
In the October installment of the NICHD lunchtime career series, former NICHD fellow Dr. Katherine Donigan spoke about her experiences navigating from a career at the bench to one in science policy, and she offered plenty of advice for those considering following in her footsteps.
Dr. Donigan came to NICHD as a postdoc in the Woodgate lab in 2011. Soon afterward, she joined the NIH Science Policy Discussion Group (SPDG) (https://www.training.nih.gov/spdg) and became active writing for its blog (https://sciencepolicyforall.wordpress.com/). In 2013, she applied and was selected for the Genetics and Public Policy Fellowship, sponsored by the American Society for Human Genetics (ASHG) and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI, NIH). Dr. Donigan has already accepted a position with the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) for when her 16-month fellowship ends this coming December. What a lovely story, right?! But it wasn’t actually that simple; it involved a lot of hard work and foresight. So let’s dig a little deeper and see how she positioned herself for success.
First, Dr. Donigan sought out a position at the NIH—she was aware of the opportunities available to NIH postdocs for science policy exploration. While interviewing, she was upfront about her desire for a career in policy, not academia, and chose a lab where the PI was ok with that. When the yearly call for new SPDG members went out (usually in August), Dr. Donigan applied. This invitation-only group exposes members to a wide variety of policy issues relevant to the NIH through readings, roundtable discussions, and interactions with speakers. Furthermore, she took advantage of the SPDG blog, “Science Policy for All,” to bolster her writing experience.
You don’t need to replicate Dr. Donigan’s experiences to achieve similar success. Demonstrating an interest in science policy by participating in other discussion forums, like science policy happy hours (sign up via www.sciencepolicycareers.org), or writing for other outlets (i.e., NIH Catalyst, NICHD Connection, other blogs) are good alternatives. There is also the possibility of detailing* in a policy office, which is something Dr. Donigan said she would have done had she been at the NICHD longer. You can find information about details through the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education or the NICHD Office of Education.
Second, despite her own misgivings about her qualifications, Dr. Donigan applied for a policy fellowship. You’ll never know unless you try! A number of professional societies offer fellowships (see http://www.genome.gov/27554538), but the Genetics and Public Policy Fellowship is unique in that fellows rotate through the NHGRI Policy and Program Analysis Branch, a Congressional office or Committee, and the administrative offices of ASHG, giving them insight into the various arenas of policy formation and advocacy. Dr. Donigan spent her time at NHGRI working on issues related to privacy and human research subject protections, among others. Now at ASHG, she contributes to lab-developed test regulation policies. During her stint in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s office, Dr. Donigan found herself working on whatever issues needed attention—from antibiotic use in agriculture to Medicare fraud—in addition to taking meetings with constituents, writing memos, and staffing hearings. Her nine months on The Hill were hectic and stressful, but totally worthwhile in that it was her legislative experience that helped Donigan land her job at the FDA.
Dr. Donigan has three key pieces of advice for postdocs considering applying for policy fellowships:
- READ! Read the science sections of newspapers, science and/or policy blogs, and newsletters from your professional society to familiarize yourself with current, relevant issues.
- Make contact before you apply. This is a great way to answer any questions you have about your eligibility or about the fellowship itself, and it helps with name recognition!
- Finally, network, network, NETWORK!!! You hear it all the time, but networking really is the best way to meet people of importance in careers/positions you’re interested in and to make sure they remember you. When you meet someone at an event or through an informational interview, make sure to get his or her business card and follow up with a short email…this way, even if you didn’t proffer YOUR card (and really, how many scientists have business cards?) he or she will have your contact information should future opportunities arise.
For more information about policy-related opportunities and activities, please contact Brenda Hanning (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Dr. Yvette Pittman (Yvette.Pittman@nih.gov) in the NICHD Office of Education.
* Editor's note: A detail is a short-term rotation in another area of the organization, either part-time (e.g., two days per week) or for a one- to three-month period, typically.