Shannon Muir, PhD, is a member of the 2015 Class of CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellows. She received her PhD in Biomedical Sciences from University of California, San Diego, where she studied the genetic mechanism behind a rare form of pediatric cancer, and served as the Graduate Student Representative for the University of California Academic Senate Committee on Research Policy. Muir’s Fellowship placement was in the California State Senate Committee on Health, and she is currently on staff with the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST).
After an exciting year of analyzing legislation, advising policymakers, and running through the State Capitol halls to make deadlines, we, the 2015 Class of CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellows, have concluded our training.
As 2015 comes to a close, I’ve had some time to reflect on my past year as a Science Fellow. A number of questions came to mind: How did it go by so quickly? Where did it all start?
In the Fall of 2014, ten strangers met for the first time in the CCST conference room overlooking K Street in downtown Sacramento.
We had traveled from a wide variety of places, including Tennessee, Ohio — and even Germany, for Andrew. Despite our respective scientific accomplishments, it was the other facets of our lives that made us appreciate one another. Among us was a salsa dancer, a cancer survivor, a weather forecaster, and a Navy veteran. One of us had even been christened by the Pope!
Once our CCST “policy boot camp” began, we learned, as scientists often do, that there was a lot we didn’t know. We had to learn how a bill becomes a law, how to analyze a bill, and how to staff an elected official. Learning the lay of the land also meant understanding how the Central Valley differs from the coast in terms of demographics and economics, for example. A field trip to the Delta gave us a firsthand look at why water policy is such serious business in California.
Our initial training concluded with our Fellowship placement interviews. Each of us interviewed with more than 30 Senate and Assembly offices (phew!), where we delivered our well-crafted “elevator pitches” to each office’s staff.
In December, the Legislature announced our placements, and for the first time in the Fellowship’s history, all five Science Fellows assigned to the State Senate were women — Angee, Christine, Debra, Laurie — and me, off to the Senate Health Committee.
That day, the five of us rookie staffers dubbed ourselves the “Ladies of the Senate” — and jovially vowed to make our mark, one committee at a time.
Life at the Capitol, Life in the Capital
When the Legislature returned in January 2015, us Fellows had to quickly adjust to a frenetic world of deadlines, faxes, and telephone calls. Thankfully, we were continually supported by CCST staff, Fellowship alumni, and other members of the wider Capitol community.
All of us Fellows had different experiences depending on our host office, but one common theme was that we had to become experts on topics well outside our scientific field. Vivian learned everything there was to know about car seats. Scott became an expert on cement safety barriers, of all things.
We also expanded our social and professional networks, and almost every night there was an event, meeting, or happy hour to attend. I personally attended local meetups on women’s issues and children’s health. Other Fellows became involved with the Capital Science Communicators, the Sacramento Housing Alliance, or the New Leaders Council. No matter our personal interests, there was a group or organization for it.
A few hours a week were set aside for high-level networking and skills training back at CCST headquarters. Sometimes this involved meeting leaders and appointees at State agencies and departments. Other times we went on field trips to visit CCST’s Federal partners, including the Lawrence Livermore and Sandia National Laboratories.
With CCST funding, we also had a plethora of opportunities to travel within and beyond California to expand on our own professional interests. Estevan and I went to Washington, DC, for the AAAS Forum and Science & Technology Policy, to network and explore careers at the Federal and global level. Others attended the AAAS Annual Meeting in San José, while Vivian flew to Seattle for the National Conference on State Legislatures Summit.
In May, Debra became the first among us to “graduate” — we were but halfway through our Fellowship year when she was hired on at the Senate Office of Research. It was no surprise: Debra’s intuition and experience made her a great candidate.
In June, there was no getting around the immunization debate — literally. On the day SB277 was being heard in Committee, hundreds of citizens came to testify, which made it tough to navigate the Capitol hallways.
In July, the Legislature took its Summer Recess, and CCST stole us away for a professional development retreat in Monterey. We got a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). We worked diligently on professional development training, but still left time to bond over s’mores, kayaking, jigsaw puzzles, and the sound of ocean waves.
Interestingly, though Angee didn’t know it at the time, Monterey would become her next port of call, as she would get hired by the Center for Ocean Solutions a few months later.
When the Legislative Session reconvened for its final push, it was back to bills, resolutions, analyses, and reports for all of us. It seemed that us Fellows somehow touched every major state issue, from recycling to education to housing.
In a Golden State
Outside the Capitol, life went on. Christine coached soccer and moonlighted in improv comedy. Angee instagrammed microbrews and put in weekend hours in the Navy Reserve. Vivian hiked and climbed the Sierra Nevada. Estevan caught us up on “Serial” as well as more obscure podcasts. And Laurie outshined us all: during the course of the Fellowship, she managed to finish her PhD and become the only “double doctor” in our Fellows Class: Laurie Harris, DVM, PhD.
Near the end of August, the Senate and Assembly each held a recognition ceremony for the CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellows. On the Chamber floor, we were presented with resolutions celebrating our year of hard work and service, as well as our former lives as scientists. And the self-styled “Ladies of the Senate” — Angee, Christine, Debra, Laurie, and I — even got to take a picture with the entire Senate Women’s Caucus. It’s a memory I will cherish forever.
By the time our Fellowship ended on October 31st, the 2015 CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellows had staffed 30 pieces of legislation, analyzed 69 bills and resolutions, and organized 10 informational hearings. Since then, Christine was hired at the Department of Finance. Scott took on a postdoctoral fellowship at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at UC San Diego. Jane will start work at UC Davis as an advisor helping researchers explore careers beyond academia. And Laurie and I are working with CCST on some key science-policy projects related to workforce development, higher education, cybersecurity, and organizational governance.
Thirteen months ago, ten people came together — a microbiologist, a climatologist, an epidemiologist, and seven other “ologists”, each experts in our own right. With the help of innumerable people at CCST, the State Capitol, and the Sacramento community, we were transformed and remade — professionally and personally — and given the tools to make our mark in the name of the greater good.
We now start the next chapter of our careers, whether as Legislative Aides, postdocs, or Research Analysts. Undoubtedly, many new job titles will follow as we set off on our new lives, but one title will always stay with us: we will always be Science Fellows.
— Shannon Muir
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