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Headshot of Katherine Donigan

Katherine Donigan, PhD
(photo courtesy of Dr. Donigan)

My interest in science policy dates back to when I was in grade school in the late 1990’s—the era of the Human Genome Project. My first exposure to the intersection between policy and science occurred when discussing proposed legislation aimed at protecting against genetic-related discrimination by insurance companies and employers. This interest in policy continued throughout college and graduate school, and through a chance meeting with Sharon Milgram I learned about the possibility of bridging a scientific background with a career in policy. As a graduate student, I attended the annual Experimental Biology meeting where I heard Sharon give a talk about scientific careers “at and away from the bench,” including careers in science policy. I spoke with Sharon after her talk and she encouraged me to consider doing a postdoc at NIH to further my scientific training in genetics and to have the opportunity to participate in policy-related activities.  

A few months later, I attended the NIH career symposium and learned more about policy-related opportunities available for postdocs. It was evident that being at NIH would provide exceptional scientific training, as well as the opportunity to gain exposure to science policy, particularly through the Science Policy Discussion Group (SPDG) open to NIH fellows. Shortly after starting my postdoc at NICHD, I joined SPDG and attended bi-weekly meetings for discussions and seminars covering a range of science policy topics. Application to SPDG is open to all NIH fellows, with around 30 members admitted each year. Applicants who are initially wait-listed are admitted throughout the year as spots become available. Groups within SPDG select individual discussion topics and recruit qualified speakers to present seminars. The discussion at SPDG is always lively and thought provoking, with many different points of view considered. Seminar speakers, typically science policy professionals, provide significant insight into discussion topics, and also highlight many different types of policy careers.

The discussion group also provided me with the opportunity to become a member and group leader of the SPDG writing team, which maintains the group’s blog (sciencepolicyforall.wordpress.com). I researched and wrote essay posts for a general readership on a variety of science policy topics and provided feedback for other members’ posts. Together with other team members, I also generated a weekly post highlighting current events related to science policy issues. This experience helped me further develop the skills to communicate scientific issues to a general audience and refine my thought process when analyzing such topics. My interest in science policy issues, in conjunction with my background in genetics, led me to apply to the Genetics & Public Policy Fellowship program.

The Genetics & Public Policy Fellowship is a joint effort between the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) and NHGRI. The fellowship was established in 2002 to address the increasing need for individuals with genetics and genomics-related expertise to contribute to the policy-making process in the post-genome project era. It provides the unique opportunity to experience three distinct science policy arenas: the policy branch at NHGRI, nonprofit advocacy at ASHG, and as a staffer on Capitol Hill. Fellows have the opportunity to engage in research on a range of policy issues related to genetic research and medicine. The fellowship serves as a bridge for professionals in genetics to transition to a career in science policy.