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How to Make the Best of Your Experience on Capitol Hill: Tips from ASPET Washington Fellows Alumni

September 06, 2017

If you read this blog, chances are that you are at least somewhat aware of the amazing opportunity ASPET offers to gain experience in public policy, known as the Washington Fellows program. Having participated in this program myself a few years ago, even though I had done my research and read as much as possible to prepare me for my visit to Capitol Hill, there are many things I wish I had known beforehand. Since experience is often the best teacher, I thought it might be helpful for those interested in the Washington Fellows program to hear from some of the alumni from recent years, and hopefully answer any questions or concerns readers might have before or even after applying. Below we have some insight from previous fellows Andrew Merluzzi (2015), Amreen Mughal (2017) and Sophia Kaska (2017).

How long did your day on the Hill last and how many people did you meet with?

Andrew: I was on the Hill for a full day, and met with delegates from three different offices.

Amreen: I met with 3 representatives, and each meeting lasted for 15-20 minutes. I finished most of my meetings by late afternoon.

Sophia: I also spent most of the day on the Hill, from about 8 am-3 pm. I met with a total of four people.

How did you prepare for what you were going to talk about with the representatives?

Andrew: Beforehand, Jim Bernstein [then in Susanna Aguirre’s position] gave me a set of materials about the legislative process, how science is funded, and the best tactics for speaking with Congress. We also homed in on some specific legislation related to the 21st Century Cures Act, and advocated that increased scientific funding should be a crucial component of that legislation.

Amreen: Susanna Aguirre gave me an overview about my Hill day visit in advance. She also helped me prepare a small talk based on my current research and its importance in advancement of biomedical sciences. My interactions with staffers were mostly discussions rather than a talk as a few of them had interest in biomedical research and they were working on some amendments/bills about advancement of biomedical science. When I told them about my research in vascular pharmacology at North Dakota State University (NDSU), they also shared their experience about NDSU as a few of them graduated from NDSU or had an opportunity to visit it.

Sophia: I made sure I was able to summarize my research in 2-3 sentences and then I had some key talking points ready about the clinical relevance. Even though my dissertation project was on depression and opiate addiction, I focused mainly on discussing the opioid crisis and what my research is doing to try to alleviate that problem. I wanted to highlight the timely relevance of the work that I had been doing.

Did you get to meet with your representatives or did you meet with staffers? What was the general feedback you got from them?

Andrew: I met with staffers, who seemed more than willing to discuss and were engaged in the conversation. They appreciated our time, and the information and stories we provided. I can imagine, to them, that a face-to-face meeting means a lot from a concerned constituent. It’s personal, and it takes commitment.

Amreen: I met with staffers. They were very receptive about the information. I also brought in a few points related to the need of diversity in the scientific pool and lack of opportunities for international students. They were pretty surprised by a few facts and they agreed to communicate the information to the representatives. They also shared some of the initiatives, promoted by their representatives for the advancement of biomedical sciences.

Sophia: I got to meet with the staffers from the offices of Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-KS), Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), and Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS). In addition, I got to meet Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), in her office for a meet and greet called Good Morning Michigan. Immediately following the meet and greet, I was able to meet with one of Sen. Stabenow’s staffers. The general consensus is that supporting biomedical research is a bipartisan issue. Regardless of their political affiliation, the representatives I spoke to understand how important research is for the American people.

If you could have done anything differently, what would it have been?

Andrew: Research the Representatives and Senators you’re meeting with - but not just their policy platforms. Figure out who is in charge of their health and science policy program. Email that person, introduce yourself, and ask what they’re working on these days. You’ll be fully prepared for the meeting, and therefore can have substantive conversations with them.

Amreen: I think the Hill day was well planned. I was representing North Dakota, and I had comparatively fewer meetings, otherwise it was a different, but interesting experience.

Sophia: I wish I would have spent time emphasizing that I am more than happy to be a resource for my representatives any time they have a question related to biomedical research, whether it be related to my studies (depression and opiate addiction) or anything else.

What important advice would you give future Washington Fellows?

Andrew: Be aware that you’re almost certain to have a quick meeting - they’re extremely busy people. Have a quick elevator speech about your research and goals prepared ahead of time. That way, you can hit the ground running. 

Amreen: ASPET’s Washington Fellows program is a very valuable opportunity to explore and understand science policy and its role in advancement of biomedical sciences, and they need people like us to help get our message across, so be confident and don’t sell yourself short because you can really help make a difference.

Sophia: Don’t be nervous about these meetings. Figure out the most important point(s) you want the staffers to report back to your representatives and spend time emphasizing those.

Again, as a former Washington Fellow myself (2015), if I can offer any additional advice it would be reiterating: don’t be nervous, try to read ahead as much as possible, definitely wear comfortable shoes and maybe do some cardio workouts because you will definitely get your 10,000 steps in that day, if not double! Thanks to Andrew, Amreen and Sophia for giving some valuable insight into the experience of being a Washington Fellow, and we hope you will consider applying for next year’s cohort, applications for which are due October 20th! (application can be found on the Fellows homepage).

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