Yeonwoo Lebovitz: Scientists for Policy – Interview with Libby Barksdale, PhD

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, Yeonwoo Lebovitz, Anthony Franchni, Megan Duffy, and Celia Fernandez will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every Wednesday for new posts.

Current position: PhD student in Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health
Program start date: August 2014
Institution: Virginia Tech

Earlier this month, I attended the National Health Research Forum held by Research!America, a nonprofit health research advocacy organization, at the Newseum in Washington, DC. If health policy meetings were music festivals, then this one was a popular annual concert featuring all headliners. A sampling of the invited speakers included: France Córdova, Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF); Anthony Fauci, Director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID); Andrew Bindman, Director of Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ); Thomas Frieden, Director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); and Robert Califf, Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Unfortunately, Dr. Fauci and Dr. Frieden left early to attend a meeting on Capitol Hill to urge Congress to act on emergency funds for Zika virus research. But this, too, was exciting in a way because I imagined the two agency directors heading off on an important science policy mission for public health.

Aside from being free and open to the public, I attended the National Health Research Forum because it provides a yearly snapshot of biomedical research and therapeutics development in the United States. Recurring themes are the need for sustainable research funding, data sharing to accelerate translation of scientific findings into clinical practice, and improved public health education and communication to address health disparities. New topics of discussion at this year’s meeting involved concerns surrounding Zika virus, as expected, but also opioid abuse, antimicrobial resistance, CRISPR/Cas-9 gene editing, and the adaptability of FDA’s regulatory science infrastructure to meet these emerging technologies. A detailed summary of the meeting and links to video recordings are available on the Research!America website.

researchamerica

Screencap featuring the back of my head from “National Health Research Forum” on Youtube

Proximity and propinquity being what they are, I mostly chatted with the people sitting closest to me at my table. Perhaps I was being nosy, but I asked the other attendees if they had scientific training and why they decided to pursue their current jobs. One PhD explained that she was working in a laboratory when all projects came to a halt due to the federal budget sequestration in 2013. She felt so frustrated with the situation that she decided to switch careers and move to a research advocacy organization. Another attendee said she was always interested in public outreach, so she pursued a science-related Master’s degree in order to attain the knowledge base necessary for her work at a trade association.

Upon hearing everyone’s personal stories, I became curious about what a PhD currently working in a job with the words “science policy” in the title would say. I was still pondering how to find someone fitting this description after the Forum when I received “The Washington Update” email from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), which details current events in science policy. I quickly googled a few of the authors behind the newsletter and emailed Elizabeth “Libby” Barksdale, PhD, Science Policy Analyst for FASEB, who kindly agreed to a phone interview.

The “a-ha” moment

As an undergraduate student in biology, Dr. Barksdale had the opportunity to spend a semester with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, DC. She described this experience as her first introduction to how having a strong science background can improve the quality and feasibility of proposed policies. She went on to pursue a PhD in neuroscience and a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health (NIH); all the while her early impression of science policy quietly sat in the back of her mind. By the time she was a postdoc, Dr. Barksdale knew that she did not intend on staying in academia. Luckily, the NIH Office of Intramural Training & Education regularly hosts talks from scientists in a variety of career tracks. Dr. Barksdale attended these presentations to get a better sense of her alternatives. She also joined the Science Policy Discussion Group, which she credits for cementing her interest in science policy. She then completed a detail with the Office of Extramural Programs in the NIH Office of Extramural Research to further gain working experience in science policy. Today, Dr. Barksdale is a FASEB Science Policy Analyst, focusing on the areas of Clinical and Translational Research and Training and Career Opportunities.

Utility of PhDs in science policy

Although leading questions are not exactly best practice for interviews, I asked Dr. Barksdale about the value of having PhDs involved in science policy. She replied that in her specific position, which requires understanding of human subjects research and training for scientists, her PhD degree was absolutely necessary because it provided her with a deep knowledge base in biomedical science and firsthand experience as a trainee scientist. Dr. Barksdale said she also benefits from understanding “the way scientific research works” when reviewing and commenting on proposed policies and legislation. And while postdoctoral training may not be necessary for all non-academic positions, Dr. Barksdale attributes her independence and work ethic to her time spent as a postdoc.

“[As a grad student] I wish I’d done anything.”

Dr. Barksdale recalled herself as a PhD student solely focused on lab work. In retrospect, she wished she had taken the time to do anything, so long as it was outside of the lab. In particular, Dr. Barksdale mentioned writing and communication as crucial skills that PhD students can develop during their graduate study. “I can’t overstate how important they are,” she said. PhDs entering science policy careers occasionally need to un-learn their ability to write endless, dense sentences. Dr. Barksdale cited departmental or school newsletters as good avenues to practice writing about science for a general audience.

The intermittent lure of benchwork

Dr. Barksdale admitted she sometimes misses benchwork, especially when reading about advances made through the White House’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. However, she is now intimately involved in guiding science policy development while wielding the tremendous influence of FASEB. These days, Dr. Barksdale spends her mornings reading the Federal Register and NIH Guide to Grants and Contracts in lieu of Neuron, and she has no regrets.

Special thanks to Dr. Barksdale for this interview. She provided many other words of wisdom that will be included in future blog posts.

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