Neela Babu, PhD, was a CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellow in 2013 and spent her CCST year placed with the Office of Assemblymember Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley, 2008-2014). She came to the Legislature with her PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Cornell University, where she designed environmental water resource systems. Babu is based in Washington, D.C., and works as an Associate Consultant with WSP USA, an international engineering firm. In her current position, she works specifically with the U.S. Advisory Services team to develop business and operational solutions for public and private infrastructure clients in all areas of management, investment and development of projects throughout the entire business lifecycle.
Name: Neela Babu
Fellowship Year: 2013
Fellowship Placement: Office of Assemblymember Nancy Skinner
Q: Why did you originally decide to seek out a policy fellowship experience?
A: As a civil engineer, my graduate school advisor had told me that the funding for civil engineering projects comes primarily from the government. He impressed upon me the importance of understanding how policy and government work — since, ultimately, those are the factors that influence decisions related to infrastructure.
Q: Think back to your first month with CCST. How did you feel during that first month of “policy boot camp” trainings and meeting your new colleagues?
A: I was excited! I knew that the Fellowship opportunity would be a totally new experience, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I enjoyed meeting my new colleagues and appreciated the guidance provided by the previous Science Fellows who were still in the Sacramento area. At that time, I clearly noticed the strong comradery amongst Science Fellows, and I was eager to be a part of it.
Q: What, in your experience, was the most surprising aspect about participating in the lawmaking process and working with policymakers?
A: What surprised me the most was that policymakers did not disagree about accepted scientific truths, as much as I anticipated they would. Instead, they trusted scientists, and debated the actionable steps that should be taken.
Q: In the course of the Fellowship, did you gain any mentors? How have those relationships helped your personal and professional growth?
A: I am very grateful to have worked for Diane Griffiths! Diane is an amazing boss and I only hope that one day I can be as good of a boss as she is. Michael Bedard-Hearn also was a wonderful mentor during my Fellowship year! It probably helped that Michael had been a Science Fellow himself. Between Diane and Michael, I had the opportunity to work on actual science legislation and to staff Assemblymember Skinner on the Natural Resources Committee.
Q: What are some of your favorite memories or proudest accomplishments from your Fellowship year? What were some of the most challenging moments or lessons learned?
A: The passage of AB 127 was definitely a highlight for me! AB 127 was a bill that called for building insulation flammability standards to be reviewed, while maintaining fire safety and decreasing the use of toxic flame retardant chemicals in plastic insulation.
The bill did have significant opposition at the beginning of the policy process. But by working with the stakeholders, including those with different viewpoints, I was able to remove most of the opposition by the end of the policy process. Not only did the bill get through the Legislature, but the Governor signed it into law as well. Diane and Michael had given me this bill because it was a science bill. They warned me up front that it would be a difficult bill to get passed, but with their guidance and by working with stakeholders, we were able to get enough support for the bill to pass!
AB 127 was one of two bills I carried which made it through the Legislature and was signed by the Governor in 2013. The other was AB 1202, which required the California’s Occupational Safety and Health Board to adopt safety standards for the handling of hazardous drugs. AB 1202 went through the Legislature with no opposition and was signed by the Governor. It went into effect on January 1, 2014.
The other two bills I carried, AB 489 and AB 1143, remained in the Legislature after my Fellowship and continued through the process the following year — with AB 1143 eventually being signed into law in September 2014.
Q: How has the Fellowship impacted the trajectory of your career?
A: My experience in the California State Legislature got me hired for the job I took immediately after completing the Fellowship. The person who hired me had worked in a state governor’s office, and appreciated that I had policy experience from the Legislative perspective.
Q: What is your advice for scientists and engineers who want to apply their science to inform public policy?
A: I would say if a scientist or engineer sincerely wants to understand how policy and legislative decisions are made, then the CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellowship is the perfect opportunity! The reality of how these decisions are made impact each and every one of us on a daily basis. If you want to be part of that process and truly have an impact, then this fellowship is a great way to leverage your science or engineering expertise to do so.
Q: Would you recommend the CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellowship to a prospective applicant? Why?
A: I would definitely recommend this policy fellowship to a prospective applicant! The CCST Fellowship provides a real-world experience in the legislative process, and allows one to understand how to best utilize their research and scientific experience to influence that process.
Not to mention you get to meet wonderful, smart people whom you can be friends and hang out with — even after the Fellowship!