Reflections on My Experience as a Genetics & Public Policy Fellow

Posted by: Christa Wagner, PhD, 2016-17 ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellow

If you had asked me when I started my PhD if I could envision myself working in public policy, including as a staffer in the U.S. Senate, I would have said no way! But this reality is the beauty and excitement of the ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellowship, which has exposed me to policymaking in the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. Government, as well as with the Science Policy Department at ASHG.

As a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, my research on a complex genetic disorder that often results in immune deficiencies opened my eyes to issues in bioethics and policymaking. I wondered how non-scientists in state and federal law-making bodies were informed about the scientific and health implications of their policies. I stepped out of the box and took a short leave of absence from graduate school to work with the Policy Director at the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance in Washington, D.C., and was hooked.

Breaking the Ice

The Genetics & Public Policy Fellowship has been essential and a life-changing experience in my transition from an academic research environment into policy and advocacy. I began my fellowship in the Policy and Program Analysis Branch (PPAB) at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). I helped the team keep up with new legislation in Congress and with regulations in other agencies that would affect NHGRI researchers and grantees. I helped assemble the FY2018 Congressional Budget Justification, which each agency compiles yearly to outline financial needs and highlight program successes and goals. Since 2016 was an election year, I also helped to draft the presidential transition team documents, again outlining the important work being conducted by intramural and extramural researchers at NHGRI.

Lessons in Drinking from a Fire Hose

My second rotation was a primer in hitting the ground running, as I joined the office of Senator Sherrod Brown just before Inauguration Day in January 2017. I worked on a broad range of issues in healthcare and biomedical research, including Medicare and Medicaid, infant mortality, the opioid addiction crisis, antibiotic resistance, drug pricing, and rare diseases.

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Making a trip to Capitol Hill with Genetics & Education Fellow Teresa Ramirez (credit: NHGRI)

My daily activities varied, but generally involved meeting with Ohio constituents (including graduate students!) to discuss their legislative concerns, as well as drafting bills, letters, and memos, and preparing the Senator for Senate committee hearings. I also managed Senator Brown’s health-related appropriations requests for FY2018, and represented the office in communicating with stakeholders after a blood lead level testing kit was recalled by the FDA and CDC over the summer. Additionally, I found ways to stick to my genetics roots, and in April combined DNA Day with Take Your Children to Work Day by encouraging my colleagues and their kids to celebrate by extracting strawberry DNA in our office conference room!

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Senators do care about science! (credit: Sherrod Brown via Twitter)

Coming Full Circle

I am wrapping up my fellowship by working with the science policy team at ASHG this fall. I think ASHG members would be surprised to see all that happens behind the scenes here, and I’ve enjoyed bringing the experience I’ve gained through my government rotations back to a scientific society.

At ASHG, I’ve been able to fulfill my primary goal of the fellowship: to use my knowledge and skills in bridging the gap between legislators in Washington D.C. and ASHG members. I used my scientific background to educate Society and Congressional staff about advances in gene editing technology in preparation for a Senate hearing. I also authored blog posts about changes to the NIH definition of clinical trials and FDA oversight of genomics research, and worked with ASHG members to develop a comment letter to the National Academies Committee on return of individual-specific research results.

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Meeting Canadian Senator James Cowan, ASHG Advocacy Award recipient, at the ASHG 2016 Annual Meeting (credit: ASHG)

Looking to the Future

Overall, the fellowship has been a wonderful and successful experience in solidifying my interests and informing my career trajectory. It has shown me the translatability of my research skills and allowed me to cultivate a distinct and highly valuable analytical skillset. This fellowship has opened my eyes to the incredibly diverse health and science policy worlds, teaching me how to take creative approaches to policy changes and build effective collaborations.

I am further thrilled to be joining the ranks of a wonderful fellowship alumni community. Previous fellows have been instrumental in helping me during this entire experience, from offering suggestions on Capitol Hill rotations to career advice and networking. I look forward to carrying along these relationships and experiences to my next role working in policy and advocacy on the Government Relations team at the Association of American Medical Colleges beginning in 2018.

And finally, thank you to ASHG and NHGRI for continuing to support this fellowship. I look forward to remaining a member of this community and to welcoming future classes of fellows!

 

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