APS News

OPA Summer Intern Gains Valuable Hill Experience

Most college students savor the luxury of summer break after grueling academic schedules, preferring sun, sand and surf to serious study. But University of Utah physics major Maria Cranor chose to spend the summer working in the APS Office of Public Affairs (OPA) in Washington, DC, as a summer intern. OPA established the internship three years ago to provide physics undergraduates with firsthand experience in science policy to complement their studies in an era when scientific research is increasingly reliant on federal funding.

Cranor did her original college work at the University of California, Berkeley, studying anthropology and African pre-history under Glyn Isaac and J.D. Clark, two of the leading archaeologists of the 1970s. She then spent several years away from academia, becoming an avid rock climber and traveling all over the world. She even helped found a national climbing advocacy and resource conservation group in 1989, called the Access Fund. Drawing on her enthusiasm for climbing, she took a job as marketing director of a small start-up company in 1989, which eventually became Black Diamond Equipment, Ltd., one of the world's top manufacturers of rock and mountaineering equipment.

However, her career in marketing eventually began to pall, and Cranor returned to college to develop another career path, enrolling at the University of Utah in 1996. She initially intended to become a developmental psychologist, but an introductory physics course ignited her enthusiasm for the subject. "Physics has completely seized my imagination," she says, admitting that she is an unlikely physics student. "My mathematical background was nonexistent and I'd had no real exposure to scientific thinking." She credits her teachers in Utah's physics department with helping her overcome these challenges.

Cranor's undergraduate days at Berkeley sparked a strong interest in politics, and as she pursued her studies in physics, she found herself becoming equally interested in how the scientific community interfaces with government. "I thought the internship with the Washington office would offer a fantastic opportunity to observe these interactions at close hand," she says of her reasons for applying for the position. "There is no substitute for seeing government in action. Getting to attend hearings on the Hill was very exciting and thought-provoking."

During her tenure in the Washington office, Cranor worked on a broad range of issues, including global warming, the federal budget for science, and national missile defense (NMD). She found the latter work especially meaningful. "It's a serious issue of national, even global importance that has tremendous political ramifications, and physicists are making a significant contribution to the debate," she says. "It was wonderful to be involved in such a critical issue." She also enjoyed working with Physics and Government Network (PGNet) volunteers on science funding matters, and relished the opportunity to collaborate with APS Director of Public Affairs Bob Park on his weekly electronic newsletter, "What's New," which gave her the opportunity to put her written skills to good use.

Cranor has since returned to Utah to continue her dual degree in physics and psychology. "My plans now are to resume studying like a maniac," she says, and is contemplating attending graduate school in astrophysics. "The APS internship helped me to realize that my combination of two seemingly disparate sets of skills - marketing and physics - might be tremendously useful in the future."

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette