Carving a Path to Science Policy and Advocacy

March 27, 2020

A picture of Adriana Bankston advocating for science on Capitol Hill.
A picture of Adriana Bankston advocating for science on Capitol Hill.
Have you ever thought about pursuing a science policy career? Are you wondering how to make the transition? What skills do you need? Dr. Adriana Bankston transitioned from bench research to a Principal Legislative Analyst at the University of California (UC) in the Office of Federal Governmental Relations in Washington, D.C. The Policy and Advocacy Fellowship at the Society for Neuroscience launched her career in this field. 

In this interview with Dr. Bankston, we learn about her career path to science policy and advocacy, the skills she still uses from her Ph.D. training and how you can make the transition.

Tell us about your job as a Principal Legislative Analyst.

As a Principal Legislative Analyst, I advocate for the research taking place at the University of California (UC) with Congress, the administration and federal agencies. 
One of my job duties is bringing biomedical researchers from UC campuses to Capitol Hill to meet with various offices. Another part of the job is organizing Congressional briefings on the Hill that showcase biomedical research taking place on UC campuses. We also interact with program managers at federal agencies on future funding initiatives or programs relevant to UC campuses. These events provide the opportunity to discuss larger issues in research and higher education, and to report the latest news to UC campuses regularly. 
Overall, I enjoy the meetings on Capitol Hill that advocate for important research issues, and learning about ideas to advance the research enterprise from researchers and educators. These aspects of the job allow me to make a difference advocating for an improved research enterprise, which ties into my career goals. 

How did you transition from being a laboratory scientist to your current position?

During my Ph.D., I considered an academic career. But during my postdoc, I realized that bench science wasn’t going to give me the kind of impact I wanted to make in society. I started thinking about other careers where I could use my science degree. At the time, there were not many career resources for postdocs at the University of Louisville. As part of my career exploration, I started a career seminar series with another postdoc, which featured speakers from various non-academic career paths. I realized that I enjoyed creating local resources for trainees, and I wanted to transition into a role focused on training early-career scientists.

I also participated in a project on evaluating postdoc salaries nationwide through Future of Research. This project further developed my interests in training and policy related to research and workforce development for graduate students and postdocs, and solidified my desire to transition into this space.

To further enhance my skills, I conducted workshops on policy and advocacy, and gave talks on career transitions for early-career scientists at universities and national society meetings. During that time, I was selected as a Policy and Advocacy Fellow with the Society for Neuroscience (SfN). After completing the fellowship, I transitioned into my current role as Principal Legislative Analyst. 

What was the experience of being a Policy and Advocacy Fellow like? 

In the 6-month Policy and Advocacy Fellowship with SfN, I gained skills in several areas. I participated in planning and implementing SfN’s Capitol Hill Day and representing SfN at coalition meetings. These experiences taught me to build relationships with various stakeholders, like policymakers. I performed research, which included monitoring legislation and federal budgets and working on a list of neuroscience champions. This gave me a chance to learn about the federal funding landscape and use my scientific background. I also took part in reviewing applications for the Early Career Policy Ambassadors Program, which gave me an opportunity to engage in training the next generation of neuroscientists. 

Finally, I gained communication skills by working on the Congressional testimony of the SfN president, which consists of responses on behalf of the Society to various calls for input (such as NIH Requests for Information). I also  worked on broader communication to the SfN membership through the Advocacy Network Newsletter. This taught me how to communicate in the policy space. I felt that SfN really valued my scientific expertise, and I was able to leverage both my research and policy knowledge for my current role. 

How did receiving a Ph.D. help with your current job?

My Ph.D. in Biochemistry, Cell and Developmental Biology allows me to understand various scientific topics and translate that knowledge into science policy. The project management skills I acquired during my Ph.D. helps with juggling and prioritizing various types of duties in the office. Finally, working with undergraduate students during my Ph.D. taught me the value of teamwork in an office setting like this, where I am now working with experts from various backgrounds. 

What can students and postdocs do right now to best prepare themselves for entering your profession?

It is important to build skills that will help you transition out of academia. For science policy, completing a science policy fellowship is the easiest way to transition. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (Science/Health Policy Fellowships) and the Genetics Society of America (Policy Fellowships) provide a list of fellowships to consider. Another tip is to look for volunteer opportunities to build your policy portfolio before going on the job hunt. During my transition to science policy, I did several informational interviews with individuals in this field and asked them how they got their jobs, what they do every day and who else they would recommend talking to. I also found that writing blog posts on policy topics is helpful for learning how to communicate with non-scientific audiences. 

What is the outlook for jobs in your field?

Science policy is a popular career that many science Ph.D.s are pursuing. It is also becoming more competitive, which is why it is very important to create your niche and share your unique story. Ask yourself why you want to pursue a science policy career and what type of policy you are interested in, then show genuine commitment to that particular policy area. There are also various types of policy positions in different settings: government agencies, scientific societies, other organizations, universities and on Capitol Hill. The job duties and levels of engagement with policy makers will differ based on the setting (for example, an analyst versus a lobbyist role). Doing informational interviews with people in different types of policy positions will give you information on the type of role you might want to pursue and how to prepare for it.  

What is your one piece of career advice for the next generation of microbiologists?

My one piece of career advice for the next generation of microbiologists is that your career is yours to make. You don’t need to have a clear career path from the beginning, but it has to be a self-driven process and a continuous exploration. Realize that your goals may change over time, you may need to engage in different activities and learn new skills if switching to another area. Also, seek various types of mentors and allies that can help you navigate this exploration. 

This post represents the writer’s personal views and not the views of their employer, University of California. 

Author: Shilpa Gadwal

Shilpa Gadwal
Shilpa Gadwal is the Career Resources Specialist at ASM.