Navigating a Science Policy Career: Interview with Kate Stoll, Senior Policy Advisor for the MIT Washington Office

Feb. 16, 2017

Dr. Kate Stoll, a Senior Policy Advisor, shares her career path, what she does in her current position, and how to be competitive for science policy. In her current role, she bridges researchers and policy-makers by creating policy-relevant reports that are shared with the government. 

Tell us about your career path up to your current position.

I earned my Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Washington in Seattle. After graduate school I did a brief postdoc and then served as a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow at the National Science Foundation, in the Division of Graduate Education. I then took a Congressional Fellowship sponsored by the American Chemical Society, where I worked with the Energy and Commerce Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives under Ranking Member Henry Waxman. Currently, I am the Senior Policy Advisor for the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) Washington Office.

How did you become interested in science policy?

I became interested in science policy just by listening to the news. I was particularly interested in climate change and energy policy. I became frustrated by the apparent lack of action by elected leaders to mitigate global warming, so I looked for local opportunities to become more involved. I discovered a student group called the Forum on Science Ethics and Policy (FOSEP) started by graduate students at the University of Washington. Through FOSEP, I participated in discussion groups and seminars on a variety of topics in science policy, including climate change, vaccines, gene patenting, science communication, and more.

As part of FOSEP, I helped plan a public forum on energy policy, coordinating experts on climate change, economics, the fossil fuel industry, and national policy to openly discuss the energy policy outlook of the impending administration. This was during the 2008 election season. As part of FOSEP, I was also able to attend the AAAS Annual meeting. The meeting was eye opening for me, because I realized there are a lot of other people who also cared about the intersection of science and society—a community of people like me. That's where I learned about the AAAS Science & Technology Policy fellowship. That sealed it for me. I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in science policy.

What were your experiences transitioning from the laboratory into a science policy position?

The biggest adjustment for me was the culture change. For example, when you work in the laboratory, you work with the same 10 to 20 people day in and day out, and you get to know them really well. But in science policy, you are meeting new people on a regular basis. It can be both exhilarating and intimidating.

Another big change was that I was able to work on issues that were much broader than my scientific research. I appreciated this change of scope from the molecular level to the national level.

How did your scientific training help you in this transition?

My scientific training provided me with valuable skills which I use daily. These include critical thinking, problem solving, persistence, and project management. It also prepared me to juggle many tasks simultaneously, and to sort evidence from argument.

What makes an academic competitive for the AAAS fellowship?

The foundation for being competitive for the AAAS Science & Technology fellowship is having solid scientific credentials. But what will differentiate you from other applicants are your experiences and skills beyond the lab, which show leadership, self-initiation, communication, collaboration, and teamwork. There are many ways to demonstrate these skills. For example, maintaining a blog about science for nonscientists, designing outreach activities with K-12 students, or participating in local policy efforts can all show your interest in how science affects society. You can also start your own science policy student interest group, or join the National Science Policy Group.

What skills should trainees develop to be successful in a science policy career?

The #1 skill for being successful in a science policy career is writing well. You have to be able to clearly communicate. For some people this comes naturally, but for most of us it takes practice. Another important skill is diplomacy. By that I mean having respect and empathy for other people's views. You have to be open to engaging with people who disagree with you if you want to make any progress.

What did you learn during the AAAS Science & Technology Policy fellowship?

During my AAAS fellowship, I spent two years at the National Science Foundation in the Division of Graduate Education. In that role specifically, I was relieved to learn that I wasn't the only one who thought that graduate education in the U.S. needs to be updated. I met many smart people who envision a better graduate educational experience and are working hard to make that happen for future generations.

There were two particularly valuable lessons for me in the fellowship. I learned that science is just one component to decision making, and that you need both the technical component and the people component to solve problems. I also came to appreciate the power of networking. The network that you form during the fellowship is invaluable. I feel that can always call upon current and former fellows if I need information or connections.

What is the goal of ELISS and how did you develop it?

Emerging Leaders in Science & Society (ELISS) is a program which I co-founded together with Melanie Roberts and Bree Mitchell. Melanie has since developed ELISS into a full-blown program with three cohorts of fellows so far. The idea behind ELISS is to bring graduate students from various disciplines together to collaborate on a pressing challenge. They do this by talking to both local and national leaders and experts about the complexities of a chosen problem and collaborating across sectors to find potential solutions. For example, this past year they worked on drinking water quality. After over a year of leadership and teamwork training and project-based learning, the students present their findings back to the local and federal audiences. One motivation for creating ELISS is that graduate students sometimes feel that their highly focused research is not having much impact on society. ELISS is an opportunity for them to use problem solving, teamwork, and critical thinking skills on projects that could help their communities.

What do you do on a daily basis in your current position?

The MIT Washington Office acts as a bridge between the MIT community and the federal government. As part of this, the MIT Washington Office assists with policy initiatives in which we work with faculty and leadership on campus to take MIT research and frame it into a policy-relevant report that can be shared in Washington. I am currently involved in two such initiatives. The first one is called "The Future Postponed." In this project, we tell short stories about basic research opportunities at risk if funding trends continue, and how this will impact society. The second is called "Convergence: The Future of Health," which is the integration of the life sciences with the physical sciences, engineering, and computation. The idea is to identify opportunities in convergence research and present a strategy to advance innovations in health. I also assist MIT students who are interested in policy. For example, we work with The Science Policy Initiative to travel to Washington, D.C., twice a year for congressional and executive visits where they meet with Capitol Hill and federal agency staff to learn about science policy in practice.

Any final words of advice for trainees interested in science policy?

I suggest that trainees seek informational interviews, where they talk with a professional who is currently working in a field of interest to them. The conversation will not only provide helpful information for career exploration, it will also help build a network. And people almost always agree to informational interview requests from students and postdocs!

The other advice is to be proactive on issues that you care about. Don't just listen to the news and get mad. Get involved in activities on your campus or with ASM (and if you can't find any of interest, start something yourself!), reach out to local and national policy makers, and practice your writing skills for nontechnical audiences. Lastly, best of luck to you! The nation will benefit from more scientists and engineers engaging in the policy process.

Author: Adriana Bankston, Ph.D.

Adriana Bankston, Ph.D.
Adriana Bankston is a Principal Legislative Analyst at the University of California Office of Federal Governmental Relations in Washington, D.C.