A Scientist in Politics, Part 3: A science PhD student in Washington, DC

By Sheeva Azma

This blog is part three of a seven-part series about how I got into political campaigns and science policy as a scientist. Read parts 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, or 7.

“In grad school, balancing my twin loves of science and policy was a huge challenge. My classmates had told me that I would have to hide my love of science policy…” @SheevaAzma

These days, I have my dream job combining science, politics, and writing. As a freelance science writer, my work supports science and technology policy, and I even craft political communications. However, I took a rather unusual path that involved leaving my PhD and, with it, all the traditional channels by which scientists work in policy.

I published this blog series for my fellow scientists interested in policy: you can make a difference in the world no matter how insignificant or unqualified you might feel outside of your scientific ‘wheelhouse.’ As someone who left their PhD program with a Master’s, I felt like a failure. As someone who spent 10 years in academic science, though, that was where I felt most at home. I was used to wearing jeans all day, and working alongside lab members who were in some ways like a second family. The policy world, while exciting, came with its own set of challenges — for example, the fact that appearances are everything and you can interact with many important people you don’t know in a single, hectic workday.

Keep reading to learn about the ways I merged policy and science as a grad student in Washington, DC. It wasn’t easy, but I did it, and both I and the world are better for it. Science doesn’t happen independent of society, you know.

photo of sheeva azma presenting some research at the 2007 society for neuroscience conference
Here I am at the 2007 Society for Neuroscience Conference in San Diego presenting some multimodal brain imaging research! I started grad school at Georgetown a few months later.

In 2008, I applied to a dozen or so PhD programs for neuroscience. I had gotten into six or seven different neuroscience PhD programs across the US, including Georgetown’s Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience. I opted to go to Georgetown: I knew I wanted to do science policy, so being near Washington, DC and Capitol Hill was a must for me. I started my PhD program at Georgetown that summer.

I was a few months into grad school in Washington, DC when the US presidential race heated up. That fall, John McCain, who was running for president against the young outsider, Barack Obama, announced his choice of running mate: Sarah Palin. Well, given that there was a huge lack of women in politics, especially back then, I actually admired Palin and her love of going rogue. She was media-savvy and exuded a confidence and femininity that was rare in politics at that time.

One day, in grad school, I was sitting at journal club, discussing the academic journal article we had picked to talk about. One of my professors mentioned that Sarah Palin was taking the US on the wrong path. I chimed in and said that I actually liked her, which was met with a weird look. Oops! I learned not to pipe up so much about random politics in my science classes.

In any case, I was actually working as a DC poll worker on Election Day 2008! I applied to become one through a program at American University called the Poll Worker Project in which students could get firsthand experience of working at the polls. I was assigned to work the polls at a church located a few blocks away from Howard University, a historically Black university. My main role was to ensure that voting went smoothly.

All the poll workers held hands in a circle in prayer before the polls opened and one volunteer prayed that we would help elect the next Black president. We would do this by making it easy for our precinct to vote and helping run a polling place smoothly. Washington, DC is over 90% Democrat, and by and large, they were huge fans of Obama. That day, we were even visited by international election observers, who were pretty chill folks.

I wrote an essay about my experience as a poll worker for an essay competition they hosted. It was a long day; I woke up before the sun came up to get to the polling place, and left after the sun had gone down. One of my memories from that day is how utterly exhausted I was at the end of that day, but also so excited to have elected the first Black president. I wrote in my essay, “At the end of my long day of working the polls, I was incomprehensibly tired, but also grateful for the chance to help people vote. I also gained firsthand insight into the voting process. Poll workers are observers, themselves — able to detect flaws in the voting processes and technologies to be fixed for future elections.”

No counties ever voted majority-Obama in Oklahoma. My home state was pure red in both the 2008 and 2012 elections. So, I knew that nobody would want to visit DC to attend Obama’s inauguration. Once he was elected, I contacted my member of Congress to ask for inauguration tickets, and I was excited when I was chosen in the lottery to receive them. I attended Obama’s inauguration in 2008 and was surrounded by tons of people who, like me, were excited for the path the next four years would take, hopefully out of economic depression and into new wins for the US. There were so many people there, I could barely see anything happening on the inauguration stage. I heard someone start talking, then immediately stop. It was Obama, and he had messed up the oath. Oops.

For non-federal elections, I was more plugged in to Oklahoma politics than anywhere else’s. For basically my whole life, friends and family had relied on my judgement for guidance on different state and local elections in Oklahoma. Every year, I would study the ballot, candidates, and propositions, and advise my friends and family on who they should vote for. I became known as a trusted expert in politics among my friends and family. In my mind, we were a powerful voting bloc, led by me. Our informal friends-and-family voting bloc, with me as its fearless leader, went for Obama in the 2008 presidential race. 

Obama cast himself as a pro-science candidate, which made him popular among scientists. He visited my alma mater, MIT, and hobnobbed with top scientists, tapping a few MIT minds to advise him. Obama launched the BRAIN Initiative, a huge project that would unify brain research from the tiniest molecular level to the most large-scale systems and behavioral levels. The goal of the BRAIN Initiative was to demystify the brain and unlock the potential of neuroscience research. 

There was also vice president Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot initiative, which had the goal of leveraging science research to understand and even cure cancer via multiple, interdisciplinary perspectives. These initiatives energized science research at a time when the overall US economy was not doing as well. As a result, I didn’t really even notice we were in a recession as a grad student, except the one time I checked my retirement account from when I had a full-time job to see that it was down 20%. I did not have any real benefits like that as a graduate student, though. My salary was a meager $26,000 a year, even after three years of hands-on neuroimaging research experience.

I made sure to make the most of doing a science PhD in Washington. In graduate school, I did some writing for the Neuroethics Society, interviewing a former White House science policy staffer. I was elected the Vice President of the DC chapter of the Society for Neuroscience, organizing career panels for scientists who looked beyond academic science. 

I also took a science policy course which changed the course of my career. It was called “Public Policy for Scientists” and was meant to provide an overview of the challenges of federal US science policy. In that course, I learned about international models of health care policy, as the Affordable Care Act was being developed at the time. Obama’s science advisors visited our class to teach us about science policy.

One of the professors was president of a DC think tank called the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies (PIPS), where I later ended up doing an internship. PIPS was founded in 1994 by experts including a fellow Oklahoman, Michael Swetnam. It advises the government on science and technology issues, especially defense issues. I worked on subjects including neurocognitive enhancement and infectious disease, and helped with different events. I learned a lot about the intersection of science with society and policy at PIPS. I like to think that I also contributed a lot in my short three months there. I still stay in touch with them today! PIPS is amazing, and if you’re a grad student in DC interested in science policy, I definitely recommend reaching out to them about internship opportunities.

After I left PIPS, I still stayed in touch with people there. They encouraged us to submit to their academic journal, so I pitched them an article about using neuroimaging to examine poverty which ended up being published. A few years later, I was watching TV when I noticed that one of my internship supervisors gave a speech at the Democratic National Committee’s convention in 2016 in support of Hillary Clinton. Wow!

In grad school, balancing my twin loves of science and policy was a huge challenge. My classmates had told me that I would have to hide my love of science policy and just tell my professors that I wanted to do academic science. So, as I was preparing my thesis proposal, and I got the PIPS internship, I resolved to never tell my advisor about it. It wasn’t a huge time commitment, perhaps ten hours a week at most. I would go to the lab, then take the Georgetown shuttle bus to the DC Metro. Once I got to my stop, Ballston, I did a quick transformation from jeans and a tee shirt to dress clothes in a nearby bathroom. The DC policy scene has a strict dress code.

Beyond my science policy work, my neuroscience research itself also had tons of policy implications. As a research assistant, I had been working on studies of the effects of alcohol on the brain, as well as the changes in brain structure due to alcoholism. Knowing how alcohol affects the brain can be used to develop smarter policies when it comes to drunk driving. 

For my thesis project, I proposed to study the brain changes involved in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I worked hard and sold my thesis committee on my research project while also dedicating time to gain skills in science policy at PIPS.

2012 rolled around. I helped re-elect Obama, as well as his colleague, future VP candidate Tim Kaine. I canvassed door-to-door in Alexandria, Virginia, and remember visiting the DNC headquarters once. 

I was also selected as a Society for Neuroscience (SfN) Early Career Policy Fellow (back then, this honor was called a “Young Advocate”) and went to Capitol Hill to visit my member of Congress and senators. I was selected for SfN Capitol Hill Day three times.

photo of the u.s. capitol building amidst snowmageddon 2009-2010
The Capitol amidst Snowmageddon 2009-2010. Photo Credit: Architect of the Capitol

SfN Capitol Hill Day was the best experience I have had on Capitol Hill. It is run extremely well with the help of lobbyists and a dedicated neuroscience advocacy arm. What’s more, it worked. A couple of years after I participated in these sessions, science funding got a huge boost.

I also wanted to intern in the White House doing science policy. I asked my advisor to write me a recommendation letter for the internship in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy or OSTP. From my Public Policy for Scientists class I had learned that OSTP helps release science funding and policy guidelines but they do not have as much power as Congress might. They can only provide recommendations. So, they don’t have as much power to set the federal science budget as much as Congress does. 

I got an interview for the OSTP internship and spoke with an Obama appointee who was a scientist turned policy insider. He was definitely a no-nonsense kind of person and, when I told him I was from OK, he of course brought up our Republican legislators. They were definitely not Obama fans. Of course he mentioned Jim Inhofe, our senior senator at the time. One time, he brought a snowball to the Senate floor to show that climate change is not real. Oklahoma is very much an oil and gas state, so I am not surprised that he did that. I found the interaction with the staffer harsh and aggressive, more than any interaction I had ever had in science. The experience taught me that you have to be tough to work in federal science policymaking. Still, I didn’t get that internship. 

Maybe it was more reflective of Obama’s tenure more generally, and the huge anti-Obama sentiment of my home state. I often wondered how conservative Oklahomans could survive eight years of the Obama presidency. I don’t know because I was rarely in Oklahoma during the Obama years. I was always busy with grad school, only visiting home for a week or two here and there.

In 2013, I left graduate school with my Master’s. I went to meet with my advisor. My project was not working out the way I wanted to, and while I had helped my advisor secure an NIH grant by providing important insights on a specific experimental paradigm, my new project wasn’t coming along fast enough.

Because I had several years of experience analyzing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data, and had trained some of my colleagues at Georgetown on MRI analysis techniques, I was confident I could catch up, work fast, and graduate on time. Yet, I could not convince my advisor and thesis committee of the same. So, I left graduate school with my Master’s, uncertain what I would do next. I was lucky to get a Master’s-in-passing, as it was called. I had heard horror stories of people spending years and years in a PhD program, only to have their project fail and leave without any degrees to show for it.

I am lucky to have been near Washington, DC and to have been able to pursue so many science policy opportunities as a graduate student. It’s not as easy for people living outside of the nation’s capital to have access to the science policy programs I did. Despite my experience, I recommend graduate students be outspoken about their interest in science policy. Because the federal government is the main supplier of science funding for academic institutions, understanding how the government works can help you get grants. Being able to explain why your research is important to society at large, including policy implications, is a hugely important skill for scientists as much as for policymakers. Learning about science policy can help you be a better scientist.

Most of my interactions in the political world were self-motivated and unstructured. These days, it’s easy to sign up for political campaigns with the click of a mouse. I personally enjoy the feeling of comradery of working on political campaigns, and it proved to be a huge support for me throughout my graduate education. If you’re like me, definitely don’t hesitate to spend a weekend here or there phone banking or going door-to-door for your desired political candidates. Following science policy as a grad student can be as simple as reading the news and keeping up with the APS FYI Science Policy newsletter, or as time-intensive as doing door-to-door canvassing for a political candidate.

Sadly, because I did not get my PhD, I was not eligible to apply for the many (highly competitive) science policy fellowships for scientists. The dearth of scientists in the political world is a huge drawback for the policy world, since it means that the people making decisions about science issues largely lack science experience. That’s why I feel it’s important for scientists to be proactive and take the reins themselves when it comes to pursuing their political organizing and advocacy goals. We can’t wait until everything is perfect and all the systems are established to get involved in politics, because that time will never come. We must be the change we wish to see in the world.

This post is part three of a seven-part series called “A Scientist in Politics.” Read the other parts:
Part 1: Growing up Democrat in a red state
Part 2: Political organizing as a break from MIT
Part 3: A science PhD student in Washington, DC

Part 4: Leaving academia but not science
Part 5: Running the political gamut and working in Congress!
Part 6: Why can’t I stay away from politics?
Part 7: The 2022 midterm elections

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