SACNAS Scientists at the Table: Profiles of Emerging Policy Leaders

Dr. Frances Colón sees science as a diplomatic tool. As a Science & Technology (S&T) Policy Fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Colón led the State Department’s program for Muslim world outreach through K-12 science and math education cooperation and traveled to Jordan, Oman, Tunisia, and Mindanao in the Philippines helping to establish programs that involved hands-on learning experiences.

431 Dr. Frances Colón“Policy doesn’t necessarily exist in a document,” says Colón, currently the deputy science and technology advisor to the Secretary of State at the U.S. Department of State. “It can be uttered in a speech, delivered in a memo, or it happens in the course of actively working toward a goal. Policy has many ways of being created and implemented. That’s not something that you know until you work for the government.”

Colón started her career as a “diplomatic scientist” through the S&T Policy Fellowship, and after it concluded, she remained with the State Department. She has served as the science and environment advisor at the Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau, and was responsible for providing technical advice on how environmental and scientific issues affected the U.S. government’s foreign policy objectives in the Americas. During that time, Colón coordinated climate change policy for the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas announced by President Obama in 2009, and was the lead negotiator for scientific cooperation with the region.

Today, much of Colón’s work involves finding the right resources, whether it is people, money, or a combination of the two, to support international programs. “A lot of countries don’t just want money, they want to tap into our expertise as they move forward on issues,” she says. Her team advises the secretary of state on technical matters and offers scientific context to policy concerns. “I love my job,” she admits. “I get to use my science background to work on pressing issues, like innovation, women in science, or diaspora issues… Scientists at the bench would see the tremendous impact they can have if they spend some time contributing to the policy that shapes their work and resources.”

Making an Impact on Science Policy

Indeed, “science policy affects the ability of modern American scientists to do science, in terms of availability and non-availability of 432 Dr. Robert Barnhillfunding at the federal level,” says Dr. Robert Barnhill, the vice president for Science Policy & Strategic Initiatives for SACNAS. It also affects which areas of science are favored, depending on the needs of the nation. “Policy touches all these things,” he adds.

For scientists and engineers who desire to effect change in government in support of and related to research and discovery, the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowships program affords a unique opportunity to make an impact. “Science policy has a lot of actors and there’s a lot of space for talented people to come in and shape that,” says Colón. “It takes a lot of small steps to advance these big issues... Every Fellow wants to change the world in some way.”

The program, now in its 40th year, provides scientists and engineers, from recent PhD recipients to senior-level professionals, the opportunity to learn about policy making while contributing their knowledge and analytical skills to the federal government. More than 150 fellows are selected in a competitive process annually. They are supported by sponsoring associations, ranging from the American Physical Society to the American Veterinary Medical Association to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and they spend at least one year in Washington working in either a federal agency or Congress.

Giving Back Through Science Policy

433 Dr. Fortis-Santiago (right) at 2012 SLI Dr. Yaihara Fortis-Santiago got her start in science policy as a graduate student at Brandeis University while serving as a mentor for underrepresented minorities. “I realized I could use my position to engage students to pursue graduate school and academic careers in STEM, and how important underrepresented minorities are in the bigger picture,” she recalls. An active member of SACNAS, she participated in the Summer Leadership Institute (SLI) in 2012. “My involvement in SACNAS is one of the things that opened the door to science policy,” she says. In fact, as a leader in Ciencia Puerto Rico (, a grassroots nonprofit organization that promotes the advancement of science, research, and scientific education in Puerto Rico, “I was involved in policy for years and years—and just didn’t know it,” she jokes. “I did the things that mattered to me…helping my community.”

Now, as an S&T Policy Fellow assigned to the National Science Foundation (NSF) Directorate for Engineering, Office of Emerging Frontiers in Research & Innovation (EFRI), Fortis-Santiago is charged with assisting in the oversight of a portfolio of 80 grants that support the development of new fields and products in engineering. “It’s an amazing opportunity,” says the neuroscientist. “It forces me to think outside the box,” as she does data collection and management in disciplines unfamiliar to her. It also gives her a chance to see how the government operates from the inside, in part because her role involves interacting with professionals throughout the agency. “You really don’t know how the NSF works until you get there.”

Incorporating Policy into the Career Track

The SLI has influenced many SACNAS members to incorporate policy into their careers. Dr. Marcelo Vinces (SLI class of 2011) is a434 Dr. Marcelo Vinces biologist who spent his S&T Policy Fellowship at the NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences. He participated in the SLI the summer between his two years as a fellow. The experience was paramount in his career planning, he describes, because “much of the emphasis at SLI was on vision rather than career paths.” The Institute also strengthened his commitment to serving SACNAS as a policy leader, something he achieved while working at the NSF to crystalize ties between the agency and the association.

Dr. Mary Garcia-Cazarin (SLI class of 2011) kick-started her career in policy while a graduate student in pharmacology at the University of Kentucky. “I was thinking of ways to establish something to help the Hispanic community there,” she recalls. So she started the first SACNAS chapter in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. “It was really important to me, before I left the university, to leave something behind that was relevant.”

But it was during her participation in the SLI, which she refers to as “the most rewarding experience in my career,” that she clarified her life objectives. Originally from Mexico, the Institute gave her an amazing boost of confidence, and helped solidify her connection to her “science family—people who understand your career and also where you are coming from,” she says. “It is a great place to move your career forward.”

435 Dr. Mary Garcia-CazarinGarcia-Cazarin learned about the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowship at the Institute, and realized that this was the perfect opportunity for her. “Science in terms of discovery was very interesting but not my moving force,” she describes. “My moving force was working with students—seeing them and helping them [advance] to the next phase of their careers.” As a SACNAS leader at the University of Kentucky, she mentored students and began to wonder if she could scale up her involvement. “I knew I needed to be doing something bigger—that was my motivation,” she says. “And the more I learned about the AAAS Fellowships program, I realized that could lead me in the right direction.” The fellowship provided her that platform. “There are many ways you can influence how science is done and how it affects others on a larger scale.”

Dr. Kenneth Gibbs,Jr. (SLI class of 2012), a cell biologist who is assigned to the Directorate for Education and Human Resources, Division of Human Resource Development in the NSF, also has found the program serves a great purpose. He grew up in Durham, North Carolina, where even as a high school student, he was working in research labs toward a goal of becoming a scientist and helping people. But “the further I got into my scientific training, the farther I got away from why I went into science in the first place,” he says. “I saw the applicability of my work in the macro, but wanted to do something more applied.”

During his fellowship, he has helped draft some of the background documents for the federal government’s STEM Education Strategic436 Dr. Kenneth Gibbs,Jr. Plan and on more than one occasion, has been called to the White House to consult with the deputy director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Gibbs agrees that the fellowship has been life-changing. “I got into science to help people, [and I realized] that science is necessary but not sufficient.” As a result of his experience, he is now focusing his career on a faculty position at a medical school where he can conduct investigations into public health and epidemiology issues. “Research doesn’t have to be basic—it can be applied to policy and be just as rigorous.”

Creating Change in Communities

For SACNAS members interested in learning more about science policy, Barnhill recommends attending the policy sessions at the annual meetings of AAAS and SACNAS, not to mention other science societies such as the American Chemical Society or American Geophysical Union. And he highly encourages early-career professionals to apply to the SLI and the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships program. “There are nuances in science policy,” he notes. “You are not right or wrong—you need to tease that out just like in science.” The skills you gain in all of these experiences will serve you well, in these capacities, in science policy and throughout your career.

Colón cites the remarkable influence the AAAS Fellowships have had in DC. “They have really changed the way science policy is done in our nation’s capital,” she argues. “There’s not a meeting I walk into that there’s not a former S&T Policy Fellow there, often chairing the meeting. They’ve risen through the ranks.” The program has a strong networking and an active alumni engagement component, and also organizes events and professional development opportunities for current and alumni fellows.

Garcia-Cazarin advises for those who are interested in careers in science policy to look for opportunities and take them. “Opportunities don’t always come by,” she says. The SLI is one that really positioned her for success in science policy. “It teaches us how much we are needed in our community,” she affirms. “It’s great that we are scientists, but we need to do more. A good leader is someone who is not only good in their field but also someone who creates change in their community.”

“We need more SACNAS members to apply for the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships,” stresses Barnhill. “It is important to provide counsel to lawyers who don’t have a science background, who make decisions on science funding,” Gibbs concurs. “The fellowship experience is illuminating,” he declares, in that it teaches you “who is sitting at the table really matters.”

“All scientists should consider the opportunity to work in policy, either as a career choice or through public service,” says Colón. “There are a lot of policy issues relevant to the SACNAS community. If we’re not at the negotiation table, we’re not going to be heard.”

About the Author

Alaina G. Levine is a science writer, professional speaker and comedian, and president of Quantum Success Solutions, a science and engineering career and professional development consulting enterprise. She can be contacted through

Related Resources

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AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships

SACNAS Summer Leadership Institute

SACNAS Chapters List

SACNAS Policy Website

Issues in Science and Technology Journal

AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy

Science & Diplomacy Journal

View the entire winter/spring 2013 edition of SACNAS News