Finding Your Science Advocacy Voice
This September, I had the chance to speak one-on-one with my federal legislators about science policy during ASM’s Hill Day. This experience taught me how to cultivate relationships with lawmakers and their staff by sharing personal stories and research, leaving me feeling inspired and encouraged in my skills as a science communicator and advocate.
My research as a Ph.D. candidate at University of North Carolina Greensboro focuses on the honey bee gut microbiome and how lifestyle, dietary and genetic backgrounds can influence the strain-level bacterial community dynamics in the gut community. Bees are responsible for pollinating an estimated one-third of the plants we eat, and their declining health poses threats to global food security. Policies that impact science, especially those affecting the U.S. Department of Agriculture or National Science Foundation, matter to me because my lab is directly supported by these 2 agencies. Without their support, I could not do the work to safeguard honey bee health or add to the knowledge base of microbial ecology. My lab is making the case for why the gut microbiome should be considered a pivotal piece of ensuring honey bee populations are healthy for future generations. These bacterial communities keep honey bee pathogens at bay and is necessary for a bees’ growth and development into an adult. My work helps support policy regarding microbiome sciences by explaining why such research should continue being investigated in the future.
My interest in science policy began in 2019, when I presented my graduate research at the North Carolina Regional ASM conference. I listened to the ASM advocacy team explain how ASM connects members to their state and federal lawmakers. This concept fascinated me and was the perfect transition for me to learn more about science policy and advocacy at the local level. Inspired by my passion for community engagement in science and desire to pursue this as a career, I co-founded a science advocacy group for graduate students at UNC Greensboro and became engaged in leadership and committee positions within the National Science Policy Network. Still, I have so much more to learn about ways to assess policy options for challenging problems and connecting my science to real-world issues.
I had my first experience communicating with local lawmakers during the NC Audubon Society’s grassroots virtual advocacy day in 2020. However, even with the prep the Audubon team gave to participants about what topics we would discuss, the time limit we would have, and assurance not to worry about these meetings, I was so nervous the night before I could barely sleep. The thought of speaking to my lawmakers about birds and conservation made me feel small— like my voice didn’t matter because they had so many other essential things to work on. However, this experience made me question how other students felt about speaking to their elected officials about their research if I felt so nervous to simply talk about a hobby that I am incredibly passionate about.
The Audubon Advocacy Day motivated me to pursue more advocacy work, which I did by applying to ASM’s Hill Day this year. ASM’s Hill Day was my first experience advocating with a professional, scientific society. When I found out I was accepted to be an advocate with ASM, I could feel the culmination of my advocacy work from the past 2 years lifting my confidence to speak with my federal lawmakers. Heading into ASM Hill Day, I felt empowered to speak with confidence and level-headedness about my passion for microbiology and the work my lab conducts. The Hill Day training provided by the ASM team gave me a broad but immersive view of policy language and the federal funding process. This overview allowed me to draw connections from my fundamental research questions to the policies that could affect that work. I was no longer afraid but excited and proud to represent my lab, school and my research with ASM. I hope my lawmakers see that North Carolina has many leaders like me striving to make our state a hub for microbiological research.
Reflecting on my first experience with virtual advocacy, I had an idealized, almost celebrity-like, view of my local lawmakers, which made my anxiety worse and made my messages come across confusing at times. However, I now understand that lawmakers depend on graduate students like me to provide feedback on how their districts are progressing and are sometimes even serving on committees in Congress that can directly or indirectly affect student research. For students that are considering attending Hill Day,
- Think about who makes the decisions on funding the scientific agencies supporting your lab or what policies change the way water quality is measured in your community. The science we conduct as graduate student researchers may not be directly related to a specific policy, but may be supported by federal funding agencies affected by policy decisions and budgets. Advocacy experiences gave new meaning to my research, showing me how science can support people and their communities.
- Connect with a local science policy group at your university, with ASM, or even the National Science Policy Network. These groups are designed to teach the basics of science policy and advocacy and provide hands-on experiences to ease newcomers into more advocacy.
- Think about the broader impact of your research. It is powerful to use your voice to explain why funding microbiological research matters not just for your research lab but for the broader community around you and the future generations of scientists to come.
My guiding principles for continuing my advocacy work are 1) to empower students to use their scientific skills and knowledge to share their results with lawmakers and 2) to highlight the vast number of career opportunities in science outside of academia. When I had the tools, resources and mentorship to use my voice to advocate for science, I saw my future bright and clear in science policy and advocacy. I hope to use my experiences now to help other graduate students find their way to their science advocacy interests and encourage them to become advocates with ASM in the future as well. Knowing that I helped contribute to the overall goal of supporting microbiological sciences by advocating with ASM on Hill Day made this experience worth doing again next year, and I hope more early career ASM members will consider applying.