Lessons from the Hill

Dr Taylor Winkleman recently completed a stint as a Legislative Assistant in the office of United States Senator Edward Markey after serving a year in the same office as an American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)/American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Fellow. Her portfolio included space policy, military and veterans issues, human rights, and foreign policy, with a particular emphasis on global health and trafficking of both humans and wildlife. Upon leaving the Senate, Taylor founded Winkleman Consulting, LLC, and is now consulting on the same issues, with an emphasis on the intersection of commercial space, global health, and humanitarian crises.

Born in Santa Cruz, California, Taylor completed the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine’s dual degree program in 2016, earning both her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and Masters of Public Health with an emphasis in public health policy. Prior to beginning her veterinary training, she served 6 years in the United States Army as an Arabic linguist and intelligence professional. During her academic career, she worked as a freelance journalist and photographer.

Her professional interests include international development, zoonotic disease prevention, economics, One Health, Planetary Health, and commercial space policy. Taylor tweets from @T_Winkleman.

The Research Whisperer was approached by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to feature a couple of their great fellowship stories. We were happy to showcase the fantastic opportunities available to scientists through their programs. If you’re interested in applying for the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowshipapplications are due November 1! Please note: you must hold US citizenship, or dual citizenship from US and another country.

If you know of non-US programs that do similar things, please comment with links so that your colleagues can be aware of them and follow them up!

Taylor Winkleman (LEFT) and #fellowfellow (fellow AAAS fellow) Dr. Emma Locatelli, attending science talks given by two OTHER #fellowfellows, Dr. Rebecca Reeseman and Dr. Kirstin Neff at a monthly event called NerdNiteDC. [Photo courtesy of Taylor Winkleman]
Taylor Winkleman (LEFT) and #fellowfellow (fellow AAAS fellow) Dr. Emma Locatelli, attending science talks given by two OTHER #fellowfellows, Dr. Rebecca Reeseman and Dr. Kirstin Neff at a monthly event called NerdNiteDC. [Photo courtesy of Taylor Winkleman]
The absolute worst moment that I experienced during my time in the United States Senate (the Hill) was during a softball game. While playing catcher, a collision at home plate sent me flying through the air and I landed in the dirt. On my head.

So, there I was, lying in the dirt, my ear bleeding, my arm bruised, with my head ringing from what I was almost certain was a concussion, and I knew one thing with utter certainty: I was going to have to keep playing. We were behind by ten runs in the third inning. We were certainly going to lose the game but if I couldn’t keep going we would be forced to forfeit. I got up, shook it off, and kept playing.

We definitely lost that game.

Thinking back on it, I can understand how many on the Hill would see that as a metaphor for politics, where you often find yourself fighting a battle you seem guaranteed to lose, getting knocked down, and having to get back up. My time as a policy fellow began in an optimistic September of 2016.

Now, in 2017, the situation for science on the Hill and in the federal government could be better.

In some ways, this seems to be the worst of times.

But I remember what being in the worst of times was like. In the wake of 9/11, I was a brand-new soldier, 17 years old, inexperienced and going to war anyway. Despite my best efforts, there wasn’t a lot that I could do to impact the fact that there was a war. All I could do was try to make the immediate situation for me and those around me better.

Now, I’m a scientist. I spent nine years after getting out of the military, going to college then grad school, and learning how to be the best veterinarian and public health policy professional that I could be. I brought with me my experiences, ideas, and motivation and discovered, in the most Dickensian of ways, that it is also the best of times.

It is the best of times because, suddenly, people are informed, and they care. The largest national protest in American history took place the day after the inauguration. Over 50,000 calls were made in one week to one member of the Senate before Secretary DeVos’s nomination hearing. Circuits were jammed, voicemail boxes were full, and offices could not keep up with the flood of emails from concerned citizens. The people are paying attention to what their Senators and Representatives say, so what they said and what they did mattered. This is the environment in which I was privileged to work and learn.

The application process for American Association for the Advancement of Science legislative branch fellows is a little bit different from that of those who serve in the executive branch. As most of us are sponsored by scientific societies, each society has a slightly different timeline and process. I applied while I was still in my final clinical rotations of vet school and I started my fellowship just four months after graduating. My portfolio was initially foreign relations with an emphasis on global health, and defense and veterans’ issues. Initially.

After a steep learning curve, I was able to take meetings on my own, staff the Senator at hearings, and generally operate as a Hill staffer. But, like Oliver Twist, I couldn’t help but ask for more.

It started out small – a hearing on human trafficking and modern-day slavery. And then another, on the four famines. And one on the importance of diplomacy. But once I realised that no-one was going to tell me that I couldn’t cover an issue, the growth curve became exponential. My portfolio expanded to cover human rights, human and wildlife trafficking, refugee and immigration issues, science education and science advocacy.

Then the unthinkable happened. I was asked to take on a whole new role: space policy. You can bet your Buzz Aldrin that I jumped at that chance!

I will be the first to admit that the Hill life is not for everyone. I could go to six or seven meetings a day on wildly different topics. Because relationships are so important to how the Hill works, evening happy hours are all but mandatory and, somewhere in all of that, memos need to be written, strategic plans thought up, and research must be done. And let’s not forget that, in order to be successful, any staffer worth their Starbucks needs to be reading several news sources every day. I had four news sites and Twitter up at all times and any free time (including most of my lunches at my desk) was taken up with reading the news in between other tasks.

Yes, it can be overwhelming. The truth about staffers’ lives is that they have 100% more to do than they can get done. The staffers who are successful learn to prioritise, and keep a running list of the things they want to get done, next to a smaller list of things they have to get done.

I loved every minute of it.

I’ve used a lot of metaphors to explain what my fellowship was like. I cannot speak for everyone’s Hill experience; each office is a singular microcosm, utterly different from its neighbors. In my experience, I had a great deal of autonomy to dictate my schedule, decide how much time and effort to apply to any individual task, and what to prioritise, as long as I met my deadlines. I could (and did) propose projects, and I could (and most definitely did) explore topics and issues that mattered to me, and could ask for them to become a larger part of what we did.

The key thing that I found important to keep in mind was simple: when working in a member’s office, the member’s agenda was the one you needed to serve. As long as something was within that agenda, or could serve their agenda, then it was worth pursuing and working on. Other than that, the one concrete piece of advice that I have for anyone who wants to work in the Senate is also simple: don’t forget to keep a toothbrush in your desk! It is an invaluable gift to know that you are not greeting the Australian Ambassador with taco breath from the cafeteria’s Taco Tuesday. A whiff of pickled jalapeno has never, to my knowledge, improved diplomatic relations.

Perhaps it would be no surprise to the reader to hear that my best moment in a year full of great moments was when my office hired me as a staffer. Not only did it legitimise my work in an environment that is not conducive to feedback or long periods of self-reflection, but it meant that I had more time to do the work that I loved.

Now that I have finished my time on the Hill, I can say that it is a far, far better thing I did than I have ever done.

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