Dr. Mallory Smith

Mallory Smith, PhD

Mallory Smith, PhD, joined the laboratory of Roger Woodgate, PhD, Section on DNA Replication, Repair, and Mutagenesis, in August 2020. While there, she studied the mechanism of DNA damage bypass in a unique fungal species and optimized the purification of soluble tuberculosis DNA repair polymerases from E. coli.

At the end of 2021, Dr. Smith decided to pursue science policy at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), where she served as a science policy manager for about two years. Just recently, Dr. Smith accepted a new position—Assistant Director of Foundation Relations at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, Washington.

Check out our Q&A with Dr. Smith to learn about her role as a science policy manager at ASBMB and what led her to choose this career trajectory after her postdoctoral work.

What does a science policy manager do?

As a science policy manager, I advocated for fundamental biomedical research and for the innovative scientists (from undergraduate to professor) who make cutting edge discoveries possible. In my work, I aimed to improve policies for the scientific community by engaging with Congress, the White House, federal science agencies, and other stakeholders. I actively represented the needs of America's biochemists and molecular biologists, developed policy recommendations to make research more effective and equitable, and created resources to address gaps in research and training.

What inspired you to pursue this career field?

I first learned about science policy during graduate school in 2017 when a proposed bill threatened to tax graduate students’ tuition waivers as income, potentially costing students hundreds to thousands of dollars a year. I became impassioned to speak out against the proposed law and began learning more about what it means to be an advocate for science and scientists. Before I knew it, I was president of the Graduate Student Council, serving as a student ambassador on faculty committees and founding non-profit organizations in Kansas City. I loved sitting in meetings, discussing important issues faced by scientists, and advocating for fair solutions to those problems.

What really sealed my decision to pursue science policy was when the ASBMB awarded me the opportunity in 2018 to travel to Capitol Hill and meet with Congressional offices about the importance of supporting basic science and policies that help scientists succeed. While in DC, my passion for science policy went from a solid 80 percent to a whole 100 percent.

(Check out this article for a few more details about how ASBMB shaped my career.)

What did you work on at ASBMB specifically, and what was your typical day like?

At the ASBMB, I wore a few different hats. In the Department of Public Affairs, we represented the needs of ASBMB members to diverse stakeholders, collaborated with partnering organizations, planned events and webinars, and I also managed the ASBMB Advocacy Training Program.

Day to day, I coordinated our efforts via email, including speaking with ASBMB members, federal science agency staff, Congressional office staff, internal ASBMB staff, and other partner organizations. I also spent a significant amount of time developing and writing recommendations to policymakers to improve the research enterprise. Here’s a link to various recommendations we made on behalf of ASBMB.

For the logistics of my day to day, I was able to work hybrid during the week. When on site, I had my own office (with a door!), and we had decent flexibility to complete our work around our personal schedules (for example, working from 7 a.m.–3 p.m. or 10 a.m.–6 p.m.).

What steps did you take to become a science policy manager, and what was helpful along the way?

The path to becoming a science policy manager or other positions in science policy is rather obscure. The clearest and most structured path is to do policy fellowships, which I applied to and ended up not pursuing for different reasons. While policy fellowships are a great option to formalize training in science policy, they also often necessitate a career gap year and incur a risk of not having a position at the end of the fellowship.

In my case, I had already been committed to science policy work for several years when I joined the NICHD, and Dr. Woodgate was very supportive of me continuing my interest in policy during my postdoc. I have a long list of activities and leadership roles that I embarked on over 2017–2021, but what was most impactful was:

I have several notes about navigating a transition from the bench to a science policy job:

  • There are science policy jobs that don’t require a PhD. In my case, the job description mentioned it was MS optional/preferred. If you already have a PhD, though, still apply! I used my PhD experiences constantly in the role!
  • The application process is likely to include a case study or presentation of an issue, as well as a writing sample from something targeted to non-scientific audiences (bonus points if you can send an op-ed or policy memo on an advocacy issue).
  • Science publications are generally not required, but some policy fellowships do weigh academic track record in their evaluations.

Where did you seek out mentorship in your ASBMB position?

In that position, I primarily sought out mentorship from my manager, and I also stay connected to both science and policy mentors that have supported me to-date. While seeking out new mentors can be helpful to grow, I think it’s equally important to begin being a mentor yourself (which has been a fun opportunity for me) and stay engaged with your mentors from earlier training and career stages.

Were there any workshops or programs at the NIH that helped you prepare for that position?

100%! I had a fantastic time being a part of the NIH Science Policy Discussion Group (please note, you must be logged into LinkedIn to view this page), and I also have to give credit to the NIH Fellow’s Committee who connected me to the National Postdoctoral Association. Lastly, I really valued the NIH Career Symposium, which allowed me to explore policy-related positions in the FDA and other government agencies. I didn’t really connect with those positions, but getting to explore so many jobs in one session was just amazing.

Do you have any final tips for fellows who are thinking about pursuing a similar career track?

So many thoughts! First, I’ll say that everyone’s career path is unique and science policy is not a cookie cutter path. I highly recommend doing lots of informational interviews with science policy professionals who are from similar disciplines as you. If you haven’t already, begin beefing up your leadership, organizational, and written and oral communication skills. I got mine from a lot of volunteering and a few formal experiences that really demonstrated my commitment to this career and prepared me to succeed in my role.

Lastly, I often get asked if I miss “being at the bench.” My answer is yes and no. I miss doing structural biology from my graduate work and solving crystal structures. However, dedicating my full time to my biochemistry and molecular biology scientist peers and improving the research enterprise one small policy change at a time was hugely rewarding and outweighs my nostalgia for growing crystals at the bench any day!

If you want to learn more about me, my career, or science policy in general, connect with me on LinkedIn and drop me a note!