A NEW ELEMENT: Chemistry Undergraduates Explore Public Policy
COLLEGE STATION -- Students who choose to major in chemistry at a top national program such as Texas A&M University do so knowing they will have their work cut out for them en route to earning a prestigious degree destined to take them places -- often before they graduate or begin their actual professional futures, thanks to a recent national trend toward internships as a beneficial career catalyst.
One increasingly popular choice among Aggies, the Texas A&M Public Policy Internship Program, offers chemistry undergrads the opportunity to add diplomacy and public service skills to their proven prowess in the classroom and laboratory, broadening their horizons and opening their eyes to new career possibilities beyond the traditional avenues formerly available to young chemists.
Dr. Holly C. Gaede, an instructional assistant professor of chemistry and undergraduate advisor in the Department of Chemistry, is one of many PPIP proponents within the department and says the program offers invaluable experiences, from leadership opportunities to basic knowledge about organizational dynamics and how science can affect such globally important realms.
"Not only is it vital to have science-literate policy makers, it is important for scientists to understand how policy is made," Gaede added. "Even if a PPIP student doesn't pursue policy as a career, the experience can still be quite influential in shaping their career decisions in science."
Gaede says the PPIP provides participants the opportunity to work full-time in semester-long, policy-related internships at a variety of sites typically ranging from governmental agencies to non-profit organizations and private firms. Students take an active role in their organizations and gain valuable knowledge that will prepare them for life after graduation.
With Gaede's help, we recently caught up with three recent chemistry graduates who were eager to share their respective experiences through the PPIP and the overall benefit, professionally and personally.
Yale Fu '12: Environmental Protection Agency
I found out about PPIP through a meeting for a student organization. I grew very interested when a former PPIP intern came and spoke before a general meeting for Honors Student Council. The program interested me as a chemistry major because my previous experience was almost exclusively research-based, and I wanted to try my hand at applying my chemistry background in a completely different way. I had also neglected my economics background. PPIP presented an almost perfect opportunity.
As an undergraduate with a little too much free time between the spring and fall semesters, I have always sought to occupy myself with productive pursuits during the long summers. To cater to my typically neglected adventurous side, I have taken opportunities during the past two summers through PPIP to spend time outside of my comfort zone, both geographically and intellectually. The most recent summer has provided my biggest eye-opening experience to date. I took a step out of my old element -- a world of lab coats, classrooms and group meetings -- into a realm of suits, teleconferences and branch meetings. I brought my chemistry-related talents to Washington, D.C.
Although my job was neither terribly exciting nor glamorous, I consider it to be one of my most worthwhile experiences. I interned as a policy analyst for the Environmental Protection Agency through the Public Policy Internship Program of Texas A&M. Despite my job title, my time with the EPA taught me much more than the business of public policy. At work, I saw in action diplomacy with foreign countries and cooperation with other agencies, both inside and outside the government. Lectures and labs had not quite prepared me for dealing with diplomats from both China and South Africa. Never before had I felt such responsibility to be a good ambassador for my school, field of expertise, and country.
Perhaps the greatest wealth of experience from working in the nation‘s capital came outside of work. I saw more than my fair share of D.C.'s intern-friendly side. The city offers an abundance of networking opportunities, many of which are aimed at those at the bottom of the professional totem pole. Think-tanks and other non-governmental organizations hold more seminars and conferences than any inquisitive and interested mind could ask for, and a happy hour culture thrives in downtown D.C. Most congressional hearings also allow for a public audience. I filled my mind with facts and opinions about topics such as transportation reform, interstate air pollution and Sharia Law (and my stomach with complimentary food on several occasions). The entire city trades on information as much as it does currency.
Overall, my summer in Washington, D.C. has influenced me in many ways, and I will carry many of the lessons from this experience with me for the rest of my life. I have a much clearer understanding of the policy-making process. I see how the area of environmental policy can use a background in chemistry. Most importantly, I have a clearer understanding of the inner workings of Washington, D.C. and the professional world.
Working in the policy-laden air of D.C. probably provided the push I needed to later make a wholehearted bid for law school. Despite my love for chemistry and research-based background, I pulled no punches during my law school application process. Despite not being fully qualified to make such a momentous life decision, I somehow knew that law school would be right for me. Through luck and perhaps some other forms of good fortune, I now find myself at the law school of my dreams (Stanford Law School). I am sitting all alone at nearly 4 a.m. in the law library. I have no regrets. Just yesterday, I was editing a law review article using my retained knowledge about the early synthesis steps in the development of pharmaceuticals. I do sometimes wonder how different my life would be without my opportunity to venture out through PPIP.
Nancy Garcia '10: Environmental Protection Agency
As an Aggie chemist, I will always remember my first encounter with organic chemistry, Dr. Abraham Clearfield, my mentor, who earned my highest respect, as well as the thrill of discovery associated with getting to understand, or hoping to understand, a bit more of the complexities, or the chemistry, of what makes us all human. I had always wanted to complete the Public Policy Internship Program and had difficulty fitting it into my busy schedule, but I made it my goal to enter the program before my time as an Aggie came to an end. I had heard so many great things about the program and the experience, which made me eager to become a part of it. Thankfully, I was able to join the program the odd spring semester after I graduated from college, so I packed my bags and moved to D.C. to begin an adventure that changed my life.
I was a Special Assistant to the Science Adviser at the Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Air and Radiation. My first day on the job, I was introduced to Dr. Mazza, my mentor and supervisor, as well as a league of other highly respected EPA agents who left me in awe. These were people who were deeply passionate to serve their country by holding U.S. environmental law and policy to very high standards. I spent my time communicating with lawyers, balancing busy schedules, attending government reactionary rulings to EPA rulings, as well as reading and editing large documents and project proposals.
This entire process helped me see first-hand why science, when in application to political scenarios, is so important. Data, proof, consistent review, meticulous study and articulation -- all skills related to being an effective scientist -- are not only important but critical to make logical as well as theoretical decisions. Science affects people, it can change lives, and it can help us sustain and protect our environment.
I worked for a year after the PPIP to pursue my finance degree but soon decided to return back to school to get a graduate degree, for which I am now in the process of applying. My time with the EPA taught me that experience and wide-ranging interests help you build a store of knowledge that you can use anywhere you go.
Jamie Wheeler '10: American Association for the Advancement of Science
I heard about PPIP from a few different places. First, the Honors Program heavily promoted PPIP and strongly encouraged students to look into it. More directly, both my research advisor Prof. James Batteas and my undergraduate advisor Dr. Holly Gaede separately recommended the program to me. Since I worked closely with both of them and highly regard their advice, I realized I should look into it (though I previously thought it was targeted to political science and policy majors, etc.).
Once I learned more about PPIP, I thought the chance to work in science policy in Washington, D.C. was very exciting. I could see why Dr. Batteas and Dr. Gaede had recommended the program to me so strongly, since I love science and think policy is interesting. I also thought that the majority of students who would be interested in PPIP were probably from a political science and public policy background, just like legislators in Austin and in Washington, D.C. Since I think scientists should participate in the development of science policies and budgets and should make great efforts to present scientific information well to general audiences, like legislators, I decided to pursue the opportunity to participate in the discussion myself, at least through initial steps to learn about the process.
In Fall 2009, I served as a Science Policy Intern at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Center for Science, Technology, and Congress in Washington, D.C. [The Center is now called the Office of Government Relations]. I spent the semester learning about science policy issues and processes at House and Senate committee hearings; observing and evaluating how scientists participate in public discussions and policy development; and identifying interesting research questions that are likely to guide science policy efforts and contribute to the common good.
My time in Washington, D.C. was educational in many ways. As a scientist and student, I learned about a variety of scientific fields and STEM education policies. As a researcher, I learned about how scientists communicate with Congress and how important that process is to ensure federal funding for research. Being in Washington gave me great perspective which with to focus on how my scientific work impacts society and how to explain my work to non-scientists. While working in our nation's capital, I also had remarkable opportunities to visit and tour museums, monuments, federal buildings and parks, as well as to visit other major cities on the east coast. In some ways it was like a study abroad to experience the history and culture of our own country. It was so much fun!
I think PPIP is a great program for building perspective. I still think a lot about the effects of science policy on my current research [at the University of Wisconsin], and I'm still considering science policy as a future career area. I was actually elected to the Associated Students of Madison (ASM) Student Council (student government) in the spring, to serve as a Graduate School representative for the upcoming school year. It isn't really science-related, but I'm learning a lot about education policy at the state and university level, which affects science education.
Finally, I would highly recommend PPIP or other similar internship experiences. No matter what your specific field of interest, the real-life experience and perspective you will gain will help you immeasurably to focus your own interests and have a more substantial impact on the world around you, through an improved understanding of complex systems and by recognizing how you can contribute. Leadership, Selfless Service, and Loyalty to God and Country will take you there. Excellence, Integrity, and Respect for yourself and others will make for a fruitful experience -- one that will be valuable for the rest of your life.
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To learn more about the Public Policy Internship Program, visit http://ppip.tamu.edu.
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About 12 Impacts for 2012: 12 Impacts for 2012 is an ongoing series throughout 2012 highlighting the significant contributions of Texas A&M University students, faculty, staff and former students on their community, state, nation and world. To learn more about the series and see additional examples, visit http://12thman.tamu.edu/.
Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or email@example.com or Dr. Holly C. Gaede, (979) 845-0520 or firstname.lastname@example.org