Posters on the Hill and Beyond

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Posters on the Hill and Beyond

Experiences in local and national policy kindle an interest in advocacy


Mark Sellers
Class of 2015, Rhodes College, Memphis, TN

Rhodes College

 Mark Sellers (left) and his colleague, Luke Spinolo, present a poster on their ultrasound research at Posters on the Hill. Photo courtesy of the Council on Undergraduate Research.

A project for my AP government class in high school first piqued my interest in politics. It required each student to volunteer with a candidate or political organization to gain firsthand experience of how politics operates at the local level.

I canvassed for Jason Kander, who was then a Missouri state representative and is now Missouri’s secretary of state. He talked to me about the importance of rising above partisanship and resisting preconceptions about people’s political beliefs. It was an eye-opening experience that caused me to reexamine my binary view of politics.

The 2012 Sigma Pi Sigma Quadrennial Physics Congress in Orlando, Florida, rekindled my interest in politics. With the sequester threatening to cut research funding, the conference emphasized political activism in the sciences. After David Mosher, director of the National Security Division at the Congressional Budget Office, and Anna Quider, then–American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the US Department of State, gave a talk about connecting science and policy, we broke into groups to discuss how we would allocate the entire science budget of the United States. I was stunned to hear some group members advocate for reallocating funds for education and human services to high-level research projects at national labs. That’s when I realized that effective policy making requires dialogue between scientists, policy makers, and the public. I knew then I wanted to mediate that dialogue.

Eighteen months later, I traveled to Washington, DC, with my research partner and my advisor to advocate for policies that promote science. At a meeting called Posters on the Hill, hosted by the Council on Undergraduate Research, I was to explain to elected officials and their staff members the significance of my ongoing studies into detecting osteoporosis using ultrasound.

I was nervous. I had never presented research to this kind of an audience; my previous presentations had all been to scientific audiences. During an orientation, the event’s organizers calmed those nerves with an advocacy-training workshop offering a simple message: speak clearly and to the point when meeting with your representatives. We scientists must tailor our presentations to our audiences, rather than expecting our audiences to follow us. With the help of our advisor, my partner and I distilled the most salient points from our poster presentation and focused on our overall goal of improving medical technology and quality of life.

The next day, we met with Representatives Emanuel Cleaver (MO-5), Stephen Fincher (TN-8), and Steve Cohen (TN-9), as well as Senator Bob Corker (TN) and members of Senator Lamar Alexander’s (TN) staff. They were intrigued by our research and its potential benefits. I felt like I belonged in those meetings, as the topic at hand was the importance of science and its relevance to policy, not partisanship.

A month later, I returned to Washington, DC, for an SPS summer internship that involved designing the 2014–15 SPS Science Outreach Catalyst Kit (SOCK). My goal was to improve public awareness of science to encourage better political decisions. I tested and created outreach activities, helped organize events, and assisted with the National User Facility Organization’s 2014 Exhibition at the Rayburn House Office Building. Along the way, I met scientists, advocates, professionals, and policy makers who were eager to promote science policy.

All of these experiences have reinforced a single message: Good communication and good relationships open doors to bigger and better opportunities in policy and in physics.

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