This piece was originally published on the BioMed Central blog network, part of Springer Nature.
Chris Pickett is a Policy Analyst at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in Maryland, USA. You can read more from Chris on the ASBMB Policy Blotter, or follow him on Twitter.
How did you get interested in science?
I always had an interest in science, but my passion for it grew through high school. I enjoyed biology and physics and started studying both as an undergraduate. About a year in, I realized physics wasn’t for me, and I was also losing interest in biology. After a particularly difficult semester, I seriously considered dropping biology altogether.
However, I had already enrolled in Molecular Biology for the spring semester, and I decided I would make my decision about my major during the summer. About two weeks into the class, I was hooked again. For good this time. This class reignited my passion for biology, and it was in this semester that I decided to go to graduate school.
What is your scientific background?
I earned my BA in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology from the University of Colorado at Boulder. For two years during my studies, I worked in a lab helping them with their contributions to the Human Genome Project.
I moved on to the University of Utah for graduate school. My thesis work characterized orthologs of putative oncogenic transcription factors in the nematode, Caenorhabiditis elegans. I then worked as a postdoc at Washington University in St. Louis for five years. Here I used C. elegans again to study the intersection of aging and reproduction.
Toward the end of my graduate studies and then through my postdoc, I became increasingly fascinated by the role federal policy plays in the functioning of the scientific enterprise. Specifically, I was interested in policies that affected the training of graduate students and postdocs.
Once I realized I was more interested in policy rather than academic jobs, I began applying for science policy fellowships. The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology offered me its fellowship in 2012 and I’ve been here ever since.
How do you spend your day in your job?
Congress and federal agencies appear to move quite slowly, but science policy is a pretty fast-paced field. Because of this I’ve found it difficult to describe a standard day. However, my days are often characterized by four different activities:
Research: Keeping up to date on current events and the actions of Congress and the administration is essential to a job in policy. It also means taking closer looks at policies or legislation that the society is interested in so that we can determine our best course of action.
Meetings: We meet regularly with members of Congress and their staff, staff at the NIH, the NSF and other science-related federal agencies, and representatives of other scientific societies. These meetings can be 30-minutes long, or they can take an entire day.
Organization: Keeping all of my projects on schedule can require a fair amount of organization. Furthermore, large events, like coordinating the ASBMB Student/Postdoc Hill Day, takes a lot of preparation and organization.
Writing: I would say 85% of my time is spent writing, and it’s all kinds of policy writing. Position statements, white papers, news releases, blog posts and even emails. Clear written communication is vital to a career in science policy.
Each day brings a different mix of these four tasks. Some days I’m on Capitol Hill all day, whereas others I’m writing one specific document because of a time crunch. And then some days see a healthy mix of all four.
What makes this a science job and what do you like most about it?
Many of the skills needed for science policy do not differ so much from the skills gained working at the bench. First, you need to think critically, and be able to discern changes to the forest and the trees. Policy and politics have many moving parts, and you need to understand how your group’s position or policy will affect other parts of the research enterprise.
Second, you need to pay attention. While at the bench, you read scientific publications. In policy, you read the news and policy-specific publications. Understanding what is going on in the larger government is essential.
However, some skills need to be learned on the job. I had limited policy-writing experience before landing my fellowship. But once I arrived, I was writing many different pieces, sometimes in the same day, for a variety of audiences. This is actually what I like most about the job.
News releases have a different audience than blog pieces, for example. Being able to switch communication styles depending on the audience takes quite a bit of practice. Similarly, understanding how each federal agency works with one another and how they work with Congress is something that is best learned while doing the job of policy.
What advice would you give your younger self?
It’s a romantic notion that putting all of your effort into a single career path, like becoming academic faculty, will result in success. So many things, foreseen and unforeseen, can alter your path and planning for only one outcome is foolish.
To put it another way, do you focus all of your time on a single line of experiments, or do you mitigate the risk of failure and work on multiple lines of experiments?
I would tell myself to sit down and figure out Career Plan A. And once that was mapped out, to figure out what Career Plans B, C and D were. Then I’d tell myself to put the majority of my effort into Plan A, and recognize just how much of that work is also relevant for following Plans B, C and D.
Furthermore, should the opportunity arise to participate in something that improves your resume for one of your possible career paths, take it. If Plan A works out, you will be able to contribute much more to your organization due to your broad experiences and training.
Should the time come to bail on Plan A, you will already have a body of work for your other career paths, and it will be straightforward to gauge what you need to do to follow one of these paths.
Dana Berry graduated with a MS in Microbiology from New York University before joining BMC in 2014, where she manages the infectious diseases portfolio.