Yeonwoo Lebovitz: Scientists in Leadership: Interview with Carrie Wolinetz, PhD

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

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

Thus far, I had been mainly reaching out to early career scientists in science policy because I was curious about what the post-PhD landscape looks like for recent graduates. But I also emailed one well-established scientist without any expectations of getting a response. Suffice it to say, I was very surprised to hear back from the NIH Office of Science Policy about setting a time to speak with the Associate Director for Science Policy, Carrie Wolinetz, PhD. I am thrilled to have had a chance to interview Dr. Wolinetz, who is—in a way—THE Science Policy PhD.

Photo courtesy of NIH

Dr. Carrie Wolinetz. Photo courtesy of NIH.

Common roads to science policy

With respect to her own career trajectory, Dr. Wolinetz described a familiar scenario of entering a PhD program with a love for science and then realizing that academic research was not the right fit for her. While she still loved science, she explained that a better understanding of day-to-day challenges of being an academic researcher (e.g., the need for self-money and total commitment to a specific scientific question) and experience on a mock faculty search committee confirmed her personal uncertainties about pursuing the traditional career path.

“I panicked,” said Dr. Wolinetz. “[There was] not a lot of options or info about alternative careers.” She eventually learned of the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship program, but could not apply at the time. Instead, Dr. Wolinetz began volunteering in policy committees within professional societies and moved to Washington, DC, to conduct informational interviews and complete her dissertation. She ultimately applied to a newspaper advertisement (“Can you believe it? Like an actual Classifieds ad in the paper!”) in the Washington Post for an entry position in science policy. Similar to my first interview with an early career scientist, Dr. Wolinetz started her career as a policy analyst with Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB).

On the many types of science policy

After nearly a decade with FASEB and rising to the role of Director of Scientific Affairs and Public Relations in the Office of Public Affairs, Dr. Wolinetz moved to Association of American Universities (AAU)—a nonprofit organization representing research universities—to serve as deputy vice president for Federal Relations. Given her wealth of experiences throughout the science policy spectrum, Dr. Wolinetz was then appointed as Associate Director for NIH’s Office of Science Policy.

Accordingly, Dr. Wolinetz calls herself a “science policy generalist.” She stated that while her work was always related to the biomedical sciences, the nature of each job required different policy skills that were specific to analysis, advocacy, regulation, and communication. As a recent PhD graduate in animal sciences, Dr. Wolinetz understood how certain policies affected her as a scientist and how animal research was conducted. To work in science policy, however, Dr. Wolinetz had to learn how policies were made, who the policymakers were, and about the interactions between Congress and federal agencies. In particular, Dr. Wolinetz credited her former boss and Director for the FASEB Office of Public Affairs, Howard Garrison, PhD, for his stellar mentorship.

“Communicate early and often.”

One of the many hats worn by Dr. Wolinetz as NIH’s Associate Director for Science Policy is that of science communicator to the public. In fact, my first introduction to Dr. Wolinetz was through her blog entry on NIH’s decision to lift a 2015 moratorium on certain types of research involving chimeric animal models. I was gathering background information for a journal club presentation and was so glad to find transparent explanation for the agency’s actions directly from its foremost science policy representative. Although more and more agencies are using blogs for public outreach and education, I noticed that Dr. Wolinetz also maintained an impressively active Twitter account.

When asked about her approach to social media, especially as a government representative, Dr. Wolinetz answered that she is a “big fan of open and widespread communication.” She continued on to say that the greater the potential impact of a policy, the better it is to “communicate early and often.” “The best policies are made when there is a clear idea of what to accomplish, potential impacts, challenges, and opportunities,” said Dr. Wolinetz. “The best way [to achieve this outcome] is to talk to people—where the rubber hits the road. Communicate with stakeholders. Provide feedback.”

Science policy opportunities at NIH

Dr. Wolinetz explained that in addition to the NIH Office of Science Policy, each institute within NIH houses its own policy shop. They vary in terms of size per institute and activities may range across pure policy, legislative affairs, communication, or a combination thereof. The Office of Extramural Research, for example, possesses a large policy shop because of the policies needed for allocation of resources.

These pockets of policy within NIH offer opportunities for PhDs to work as policy analysts while staying close to science. In some cases, said Dr. Wolinetz, postdoctoral experience would entail specialized training that can be very useful.

Passion for policy

It is abundantly clear that Dr. Wolinetz enjoys working in science policy—even if she were to not mention it several times throughout the interview (which she did). “I find policy fascinating,” she said. “I talk about it in my free time.” Dr. Wolinetz admitted that she occasionally misses having a community of her own scientific discipline and attending conferences to hear about the cutting-edge discoveries in that field. Fortunately, she has “never felt that far removed from scientists,” and believes her own scientific training served her well throughout her policy career.

As for PhD students currently exploring career options in science policy or otherwise, Dr. Wolinetz strongly suggested informational interviews. At the very least, they can serve as a process of elimination. “Call up people with jobs you’re interested in,” she advised. “As you learn more about the field, it helps to focus and identify skills you need.”

After this interview with Dr. Wolinetz, it occurred to me that I had been inadvertently conducting informational interviews through this NIH-BEST blog series. I am still baffled that people responded to my emails in the first place, and it makes me wonder if I should use this blog to contact Nobel laureates—or at least Daft Punk—for next month.

Special thanks to Dr. Carrie Wolinetz for taking the time out of her very busy schedule for this interview. She can be found on the NIH Office of Science Policy blog, Under the Poliscope, and on Twitter @cwolinetznih.

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