Graduate student organization promotes science policy advocacy

by Jessica Montez

Student organizations are great for catering to student interests, culture and identity, but as fields become more diverse and interdisciplinary, students are developing niches that don’t necessarily fit into a “one size fits all” organization. Catalyst for Science Policy – founded by a few passionate Ph.D. students with some start-up support from the Graduate School – is one such organization.

Since 2013, the Graduate School has held competitions for graduate students to attend the Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering workshop (CASE) in Washington, D.C., hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The workshop teaches science communication and advocacy strategies, and then gives students a chance to test their new skills when they meet with congressional representatives.

Catalyst for Science Policy
Using communication skills to explain science to the media, a researcher demonstrates biosafety practices at the Influenza Research Institute. (Photo: University Communications/Jeff Miller)

“We know that not all people who have a Ph.D. work in a professorship after graduation. They go on to hold all sorts of important roles, including many as science communicators,” explains Alissa Ewer, Assistant Dean for Professional Development and Communications. In addition to the CASE workshop, the UW–Madison Graduate School offers professional development guest lectures and workshops to increase student exposure to careers beyond academia.

The first year the competition was held, Zulmarie Perez-Horta was one of two graduate students selected to attend the CASE workshop. Perez-Horta was a Ph.D. candidate in the Cellular Molecular Program when she discovered the competition: “I came upon the Versatile PhD website, which explains the different things you can do with your Ph.D.” The workshop opened possibilities to a career outside an academic track and introduced her to scientists, both veterans and recent graduates, involved in science policy advocacy. After the workshop, Perez-Horta briefed Ewer on her experience and proposed the idea to establish a student organization geared towards students interested in science policy advocacy. She came up with the idea after meeting an engineering student who spearheaded a similar organization at MIT. Perez-Horta presented her experience at a Life Sciences Career Day, to promote participation as well as to survey general interest in the new student organization.

At that point the group consisted of four students who officially registered the organization with the Center for Leadership Involvement (CfLI). The Graduate School provided initial grants for its start-up and helped increase visibility to departments and fields outside of the CMP, such as School of Engineering and the La Follette School of Public Affairs.

“They were very supportive in hearing our ideas, and we participated in the new graduate student welcome … so one of things we were interested in was getting people exposed earlier rather than later, and [the Graduate School] helped us through that,” Zulmarie Perez-Horta says.

Perez-Horta graduated in spring 2017 and accepted an American Association for the Advancement of Science in Science and Technology Policy Fellowship and passed on the CaSP torch to the next wave of graduate students.

Carlton P. Frost, a Neuroscience Ph.D. and Public Policy M.S. alumnus, is currently co-president of CaSP along with Biochemistry Ph.D. student Sam Anderson. Frost joined shortly after CaSP started, to do social media. Two of the early goals of CaSP were to increase awareness on campus about the organization and define science policy to the community. Frost explains, “Science policy is a two-way street: science as evidence to inform science policy making and policy for science, which is governing and improving the overall research enterprise.”

CaSP has grown from a nuclear group of CMP graduate students focused on career exploration opportunities, to broader interest in policy outreach and interaction with political leaders, explains Jenny Bratburd, Microbiology Ph.D. student and current Treasurer of CaSP. The organization currently holds eight to ten permanent officers with a following of 50-70 members. The group weighs in on matters that involve the science community regarding the federal budget and engages members and the community with open meetings and free events. CaSP holds different events on campus once a month during the academic year, and recently won a competitive professional development programming grant from the Graduate School. These events allow scientists at all levels to get involved in current science policy issues. Frost explains, “We need experts to be tapped, as well as to allow early scientists to get involved.”

Student organizations such as CaSP educate members and engage in community outreach – but they also facilitate the individual professional development of student leaders, many of who identify niche career interests that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.