Careers in Science Policy: Representing Science to Make a Societal Impact

By: Caitlin Burgdorf, BS

Moderated by: Yaihara Fortis-Santiago, PhD (Memorial Sloan Kettering, New York, NY)

Panelist speakers: Barbara Natalizio, PhD (The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine: Washington, DC), Yvette Seger, PhD (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology [FASEB]: Bethesda, Maryland), Caira Woods, PhD (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: Washington, DC)

Image from (February 2017)

The underpinnings of any formal societal advance are held together by the policy behind it. In this process, a trained scientist represents a key player who recommends scientifically-relevant policies to lawmakers and other influential agents. The growing career path of science policy has appealed to innovative and persuasive scientists who perform a multitude of tasks under the umbrella of science policy.

While Dr. Yvette Seger was completing her PhD in Genetics from Stony Brook University, she began to find herself drawn to the tasks outside her bench work. Although she “really wanted to identify as a geneticist” when she left the lab, she noticed her strengths in science communication and public outreach both in the local community and in her encounters with Congressional leaders during Capitol Hill Days. Following graduation, Dr. Seger was selected for the Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy fellowship position at the National Academies. During her fellowship, she actively explored opportunities in different advocacy groups and institutes, which eventually fostered her current role as the Director of Science Policy for the Federation of the American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). As the leading director of Science Policy to a coalition representing over 130,000 researchers, she is in constant communication with scientists about the implications of possible policies on their work. “I had to step away from science to appreciate it. For me to stay excited about science, I have to not do it. I like to get other people excited about science.” The reciprocal relationship between herself and FASEB’s leadership is vital for translating their data from the bench to the policy makers, without having to get her hands dirty in the laboratory. “Their passion [for their science] gets me excited to help them. Not necessarily help them by pipetting, but I do what they don’t want to do which is talk to policy makers or write the angry letters…but I still consider myself a scientist.”

Dr. Caira Woods also became engaged in the science policy world during graduate school. After graduating with a PhD at NYU, she was offered a Presidential Management Fellowship at the National Institutes of Health, which allowed her to perform rotations through different components of government. Although she began exploring science policy roles at the NIH, she became increasingly drawn to health policy. Consequently, she accepted a position as a senior advisor for health and science policy at the Department of Health and Human Services, where she employed her broader skill set learned during her PhD to address women’s health issues. She was subsequently recruited to the White House to work on a range of policy issues including HIV/AIDS and opioids. She recently transitioned to a position as a Program Officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation where she leads grant making and conducts strategy development for a learning initiative on poverty in the United States. Dr. Woods uses her diverse experiences in health policy along with her problem solving skills gained during graduate school to work towards successful completion of the learning initiative. “As little science as I do [on a daily basis], I very much identify as a scientist and it shows in my career. I have been exploring the whole time.”

Dr. Barbara Natalizio, alternatively, had not considered science policy as a potential career path upon completion of her PhD in molecular genetics and microbiology from Duke University. Instead, her interest in improving policies pertaining to career and professional development of early career scientists emerged from her volunteer leadership experiences with the Vanderbilt University Postdoctoral Association and the National Postdoctoral Association. This led her to apply for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellowship in which she accepted a placement at the National Science Foundation in the Division of Graduate Education. “I’m really happy that I did the science policy fellowship just to gain the diversity of experience. I don’t think I would have been happy doing bench work forever.” Currently, as a Program Officer with the Board on Higher Education and Workforce at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, she builds relationships and collaborates with experts and sponsors from federal government agencies, foundations, and universities. Dr. Natalizio is responsible for assisting with the development of written reports that are disseminated to both the public and policymakers. Two ongoing projects, Revitalizing Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century and the Next Generation Researchers Initiative, are poised to implement policies, practices, and programs that improve conditions for graduate students and early career researchers. One of her most valuable experiences so far has been to support the work of over a dozen federal agencies as part of her role with the National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education (CoSTEM) Graduate STEM Education Interagency Working Group.

From the accounts of these three successful scientists, it is clear that there are multiple paths to a rewarding career in science policy. For positions more involved in scientific interpretation, Dr. Yvette Seger has found that “almost every one of them that I’ve watched hire wants you to identify as a scientist in that field,” so she recommended completing a strategic postdoctoral position to qualify yourself as an expert in that field. Of course, many science policy jobs, including several fellowship programs, have a broader scope. To prepare for these positions, the panelists strongly recommend becoming involved in professional societies, many of which offer their own science policy fellowships and advocacy committees both in local districts and in Washington, DC. By becoming familiar with current issues through joining a science policy discussion group, science policy career aspirants provide themselves with another opportunity to be exposed to topics confronted within careers in science policy.


Edited by Christos Lisgaras, PhD; Tristan Fehr

Author: Caitlin Burgdorf is a Ph.D. candidate at Weill Cornell Medicine pursuing her neuroscience degree in the study of addiction sciences.

Keywords: science policy, careers, What Can You Be with a PhD, panel discussion