By Brammy Rajakumar and Tessa Haining
It’s not often that undergraduate students get the chance not only to do science, but also to impact how that science is done through ACS-led advocacy work.
On June 17, a group of students from Harvard University, their professor, Dr. Heidi Vollmer-Snarr, and a high school student joined Dr. Doris Lewis, chair of the NESACS Government Relations Committee, in a meeting with 4th District Rep. Jake Auchincloss and his staff to discuss bills to be included in the USICA/COMPETES Act. While Drs. Lewis and Vollmer-Snarr had experience meeting with government representatives, for the students this was their first chance to glean an inside look at how science policy traveled from idea to document to impact.
Rep. Auchincloss began the meeting, to the students’ surprise, with introductions. The students were able to introduce themselves not just as scientists-to-be but as constituents as well, with roles both in furthering scientific research and in seeing research interests served by government priorities. Dr. Lewis, Dr. Vollmer-Snarr, and the students all appreciated the chance to tell Rep. Auchincloss a bit about themselves and their journeys to studying chemistry, adding faces and individual stories to the interests of scientific research.
The student-led group focused on presenting bills H. R. 476, Innovation Centers Acceleration Act; H. R. 204, STEM Opportunities Act; H.R. 74, Protecting Local Communities from Harmful Algal Blooms Act; H.R. 2307, Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act; and H.R. 1512, Climate Leadership & Environmental Action for our Nation’s (CLEAN) Future Act. These bills addressed a range of issues: inclusion in the sciences for women, minorities, and immigrants (H.R. 204); STEM funding for young scientists from under-resourced regions; prevention of natural disasters caused by toxic algae blooms; and awareness about supply chains for helium. Each student was able to connect the bill they presented with stories from their own personal background or causes important to them, weaving advocacy for chemistry research with a genuine conversation.
After the students had presented the bills, the meeting drifted towards an open discussion, with Rep. Auchincloss interested in learning more about the state of scientific research in Massachusetts and nationwide. The conversation covered the growth of medicinal chemistry, academia, and international collaboration, in conjunction with policymaking and ACS’s interests. As a representative for Massachusetts, one of the biggest scientific communities in the nation, Rep. Auchincloss shared his experiences working with Congress on these and similar bills. The group learned from Rep. Auchincloss about the different ways to overcome logistical hurdles in implementing pieces of science-related policy, like how language from smaller bills could be appended to larger legislative packages as “report language”. Specifically, the group dived into the complexity around immigration waivers for PhD candidates and the importance of international partnerships across boundaries to advance the sciences, with Rep. Auchincloss ultimately offering to take closer looks at some of the bills presented. Coming out of the meeting, the young scientists were grateful to have been able to share their experiences, build stronger connections with representatives, and participate in some small way in growing the relationship between the researchers who drive science and the government officials who shape how science is completed.
Participating in the meeting were Tessa Haining, Harvard senior and undergraduate researcher at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute; Brammy Rajakumar, Harvard senior and research assistant at the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology’s advanced undergraduate laboratories; and Dr. Heidi Vollmer-Snarr, Director of Advanced Undergraduate Laboratories and Senior Preceptor on Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University. Zach Snarr is a student at Concord-Carlisle High School and the Harvard Extension School. Dr. Vollmer-Snarr is a member of the ACS Committee on Chemistry and Public Affairs and has a leadership role in involving research students in public policy.