Gaining a Policy Perspective for Early Career Scientists


            By Kellen Marshall                     ESA Policy Section Liaison

Kellen Marshall is a PhD Candidate in the Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is also a policy liaison for the ESA student section. Her doctoral work focuses on urban agriculture and understanding the heterogeneity within and between cultivation sites as it relates to plant productivity in the city of Chicago.  She is a SEEDS alumni and 2011 recipient of the Graduate Student Policy Award.  Kellen has been a member of ESA since 2008 and has also served in leadership roles within the Environmental Justice Section.

          A policy perspective matters for ESA students more than you may think.  If engaging within the policy realm is beyond your immediate interest it probably won’t be so far removed as you transition into the workforce.  My interest in policy began early in my undergraduate career in the form of an internship with an elected official. It had absolutely nothing to do with my research interest and nothing to do with my desire to become a tenure track faculty member (I know cue dream music and stars). Anyhow, through Illinois State Representative Al Riley, I learned that people within policy don’t come just from the poly-sci world. He himself was a biostatistician who was always somewhat connected to the community personally until he felt so inclined to run for office. 

 What I gathered from that experience as an early budding scientist being directly mentored by a politician, who was still a scientist, was how much our expertise, as scientists, was needed within the political framework. As consultants, or professionals with expertise to give solicited testimony or public comments, we have a place at the table! and it is vital that we occupy those spaces.  No, I am not trying to convince most of you to finish graduate school and pursue a political agenda to thin out the post doc competition (crossing fingers behind my back)  LOL, but I’m simply trying to place your professional expertise into the context of our nations needs.  While we understand the utility of basic research, and often defend it fiercely, we neglect to understand the value of our scientific expertise and intellect in how policies and legislation are set forth. While decision makers may not apply our information in a way that results in the best decision, it is our responsibility as scientists to communicate with our peers and the public.

 Imagine legislators as your class of intro bio students who also have the power to determine the budget of your research institution.  They have life experience and they all come with their own perspective, they also have unlimited access to teach themselves, find their own information and interpret that information from their biased perspectives. Yet, they possess a dearth of scientific understanding, despite their unlimited access to scientific information; not to mention the “b” word that we actively try to keep outside of our science-bias. We take an entire semester detailing and breaking down concepts in order to help student establish a deeper understanding of biology. Unfortunately legislators don’t have the time and some don’t have the interest to gain the same level of understanding that we have or that a bio student needs: insert us. 

 ‘Us. We are the future of our scientific societies and scientists in society.  It is a part of our culture to communicate this science without bias, without supporting one party or another but to increase understanding so that decision makers do not “I don’t know” their way into a bill that is counterintuitive to the science agenda that advances our nations vital areas of interest.  While my experience with policy began years ago, I do recognize that for some students adding to heavy course loads, endless field seasons and hours of writing papers or grading them (hang in there all my fellow teaching assistants) is neither easy nor intuitive.  The benefits to including a policy perspective within a broader scope of your work is that it grounds your research in relevance, increases the diversity of your extended network and allows for us to continue to practice articulating our knowledge in a non-biased manner.  I have personally enjoyed the learning experience of how to effectively communicate within the policy realm, as it is tremendously different from talking to a room full of undergraduates and different still from communicating with peers at our annual ESA conferences.  It is through the Public Affairs Office that I have been able to gain the skills and insight for engaging in policy issues.  Their role is as follows:

 “ESA’s Public Affairs Office manages the Society’s public policy and media initiatives. Working closely with its elected leadership, we facilitate opportunities for members to engage beyond the scientific community through media contacts, press releases, social media, briefings, and one-on-one meetings with policymakers. We provide media and policy training to our members, in addition to bimonthly updates on national policy developments relevant to this ecological community.” (

 Besides serving the entire ESA membership in general there are other opportunities that the Public Affairs Office provides for student members; the annual Graduate Student Policy Award.  This award is offered, “gives graduate students hands-on science policy experience including interacting with congressional decision-makers, federal agency officials, and others engaged in science and public policy” (ESA GSPA)

 I am a proud alumna of the 2011 cohort, and still continue to benefit from the lessons I learned in Washington, D.C.  It was an experience that helped me gain confidence in communicating with legislators and working on framing messages in a way that resonated with policy makers instead of writing for a peer review journal. If you are interested in more of my experience firsthand check out my podcast interview with ESA Policy Analyst Terence Houston on Ecologist Goes to Washington titled “Environmental Justice: Merging Earth Stewardship with Social Justice”. I strongly urge graduate students interested in policy to apply for the award.  The alumni page has comments from past awardees and you can see that the students have a diverse range of research interest, so do not let your area of interest dissuade you from applying, and good luck!

 Lastly, I have considered some questions ESA Student Section members would likely have on benefits of having a policy perspective as well as ways to participate within the society. I have also responded to those questions as well.


How do I get involved in policy as an early career scientist?

This may be a very unique experience because there are some opportunities that are exclusive depending on if you are an undergraduate vs. graduate student.  Some institutions have internships that connect students to municipal and legislative experiences.

 Other experiences can come from organizations such as the Coalition of Women Legislators of Illinois or COWL for short. The New Leadership Illinois program is to engage women regardless of their discipline regarding policy issues and to encourage women to engage in public affairs and legislations. There are also governmental paid/unpaid fellowships as well as science policy fellowships for professional societies. Also there are opportunities to engage in giving public comment from your perspective as a scientist. Often government agencies will open up public comments for changes in policy or feedback regarding policies. These are times in which you can engage thoughtfully as an individual or even on behalf of a non-profit conservation group. Visit my blog entry (“Testify” An Ecologists Opportunity to Speak Up) for my personal story on testifying at EPA public comments hearing on carbon emissions regulations.


What are the benefits of a policy perspective at this stage of my career?

The sooner you begin to engage even if it is at the level of being aware of the policy climate within science the better.  I know we already have enough to do, (trust me I have three school aged kids and 60 undergrads I have enough laundry and poorly written lab papers to make me into a house hermit until our 2016 FAFSA’s are due) however for those of us who have the interest being able to connect within diverse networks as an early career scientist gives you some investment into building your brand as well as maturing in your position on policies as it relates to science.


Where do I get policy information from as it relates to ESA members?

For policy news within the society the Public Affairs Office webpage would be golden for you. Visit the site often for all of your policy and communications needs as it relates to the society.


Who are some ESA members you need to know in policy?

For a complete list of whose who in the Public Affairs Office visit their staff directory. Everyone is extremely accessible and responsive, (unlike some of our committee members LOL)