The American Physical Society selected the Joseph Michels as its next Congressional Fellow. Michels will serve one year as a special legislative assistant in a congressional office, following an intensive, 10-day orientation period and interview process.
"In the old era, it was almost unquestioningly accepted that science would improve the lives of American citizens and make us safe in the dangerous world of the Cold War, but those certainties have now disappeared," Michels said of his reasons for applying for the APS Congressional Fellowship. "The present is an uncomfortable transition period where fundamental questions are being asked about the role of science and the research community in a world governed by new economic and political decisions." Nevertheless, he views this as an opportunity to redefine and revitalize the way science is pursued in the U.S. and abroad, and believes young leaders with a broad base of scientific knowledge and strong communication skills are essential to the transition.
Michels received his B.S. in physics, with a minor in English, from LaSalle University in 1986, and his D.Phil. in experimental condensed matter physics from Oxford University's Pembroke College in 1994. As junior dean during his last two years of graduate study, he served on several college committees and helped initiate a formal policy governing the consumption of alcohol in Pembroke. Michels is currently employed by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, which in collaboration with Universita di Firenze (Italy), developed the ultraviolet coronograph spectrometer (SOHO) satellite. Based at Goddard Space Flight Center, Michels is helping to develop the observing plan for the UVCS instrument on a weekly basis. Time not spent in mission planning he uses to study solar physics and the wealth of new information on the sun already produced by SOHO.
A former participant in the 1987 Pan American games and a contender for the 1988 and 1992 Olympics in rowing, he also rowed for Oxford in the annual boat race against Cambridge, a national event in England that garners worldwide media attention. Two years before commencing studies at Oxford, Michels was a founding partner of This Old House Renewed, a self-started and managed renovation firm in Philadelphia.
Michels hopes to spend his fellowship year as a legislative assistance to a Member of Congress. He is particularly interested in the necessity of improving basic science education in the U.S. "Science now occupies a pervasive role in modern civilization, but sadly, it is not viewed as an integral part of our general culture, but as the domain of an elite subset of society," he said. "This scientific illiteracy prevents people from reaching an informed consensus on political debates, such as the disposal of nuclear waste, deterioration of the upper atmosphere, advantages of optical fiber communication links, and national defense."
According to Michels, the fault lies as much with scientists as with Congress. He believes the solution is two-fold: improving science education will make it easier for scientists to explain the relevance of their work, and improving representation of the scientific community on Capitol Hill will encourage nonscientists to become more aware of the technical considerations underlying many important political decisions.
Two other APS members were also named 1996-1997 Congressional Fellows. Dr. Stephan J. Hagen, who is currently working at the Laboratory of Chemical Physics, NIH, was selected as the American Institute of Physics Congressional Fellow. Dr. Michal Freedhoff, who is currently working in the AIP Public Information Division, was named the Materials Research Society/Optical Society of America Congressional Fellow. Dr. Freedhoff developed many of the one-page Physics Success stories that were featured in the May 1996 issue of APS News.
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