Edward van Opstal: Advocating for Science

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Over the course of six months, Edward van Opstal, Ruchi Masand, Corina White, and Darcie Cook will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every Wednesday for new blog posts!

Current position: 4th year PhD candidate in Biological Sciences

Program start date: 2013

Institution: Vanderbilt University

Welcome back,

With the March for Science still fresh in everyone’s minds, I’d like to talk a little about my experience in learning to advocate for science. Alongside teaching, I think becoming a successful advocate is a fundamental skill for science communication. Science may be pure and impartial, but there are always agendas and biases within the study of science. This human aspect means that some research will inevitably be prioritized over others, whether on the lab scale or nationwide. The ability to explain and promote one’s research is vital; an advocate must be convincing and clear to improve the funding and policies that affect their work.

So how did I get advocacy experience as a graduate student?

While not found in a course guide, there were several ways in which I got involved in advocacy at Vanderbilt. By tapping into my university relationships, I learned about and joined the Academic Alliance of Life Science Tennessee, a state-wide organization with the mission to promote the life science industry in Tennessee. Life Science Tennessee is very supportive of its student members and gave me a platform to network and advocate through events like their annual conference, LSTCON, and the Tennessee Day on the Hill. It’s not every day a graduate student has the ability to talk with state legislators, heads of pharmaceutical companies, and Congressional staffers. Talking with Life Science Tennessee leaders, I found out that these organizations exist all over the country and they want graduate students and post docs to help advocate for science because our voice reflects the next generation of research and innovation.

I’ve also seen opportunities in the several different professional societies that I’ve joined. They all have young scientist councils or committees that want to hear the student’s perspective on improvement in graduate education and career development. While I may not have been chosen for a Young Scientist position on the American Society for Microbiology Council on Microbial Sciences this year, you can bet that I’ll try again during the next election. It was important to realize that, even as a graduate student, my opinion matters to science research and policy and my voice should be heard.

What did these experiences teach me?

  • Never, never ever go anywhere without a prepared elevator pitch. While I was able to get away with a rough explanation of my research to colleagues, business executives and politicians need 5 key points, at most, to engage their attention. Otherwise, you receive the dreaded “That sounds like complicated stuff” and the inevitable change of subject. I needed a draw for them in the first 5 sentences to keep the conversation going. Luckily, I work with gut microbes and poop, which is always interesting, just not during the cocktail hour.
  • What I find fascinating can be drastically different from what others find fascinating. While science and research for the pursuit of knowledge are noble goals, advocacy entails understanding the mindset of the person you’re reaching out to and framing your point to fit their goals. When talking with business execs, instead of mentioning what my work means for microbiome acquisition and evolution, I need to discuss the implications of my work for personalized medicine and the healthcare industry.
  • Be ready to express opinions; they do matter. Even in a group of knowledgeable, experienced lobbyists, some state legislators were interested in what I had to say during the quick visits the Life Science Tennessee delegation had during Day on the Hill. After the initial shock of “What do I say? Don’t say something stupid!”, I was able to relax and express my thoughts on different polices from a graduate student perspective. I think it was a great lesson to realize that having a voice meant I also had to have opinions.
  • Show you care. It’s not enough to present your case well, know your audience, or give good opinions. You have to sell it. While my first tip was important to hook someone in to the conversation, there is no substitute for enthusiasm and conviction to keep someone engaged in what you’re promoting. Some of the best conversations I had while networking at the Life Science Tennessee conference were discussing the topics I cared about the most. But, over time, I was able to recreate those moments with any topic as long as I put all of my energy and experiences into the conversation. The only way to make someone else care is if they see that you do first.

What am I going to do with what I learned?

As I mentioned in my previous blogs, I have career aspirations in science advocacy and outreach so being able to talk with people from industry and government has been a priceless opportunity for me. I will use these experiences to network and eventually apply to the incredible science policy fellowships available in Washington D.C. such as: the FDA Commissioner’s Fellowship, the AAAS STP Fellowship, the Presidential Management Fellowship, and the countless Congressional fellowships through the professional societies.

With the March for Science a recent memory, it is also important to remember that science advocacy can be as simple as writing a letter, sending an email, or making a phone call. Everyone has 5 minutes to do that. The science community is stronger when a chorus of voices are heard.

Next month, I’ll talk about my experiences with science outreach. And so, I sign off with:

 

In science, policies can dictate what we do,

Controlling funding and the work we bring to you.

Advocates speak out to change a leader’s notion,

Being clear and concise, they keep science in motion.

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