APS News

OPA Fellows Learn the Ropes on the Hill

Steve Pierson and Susan Ginsberg
Photo Credit: Alan Chodos
Steve Pierson and Susan Ginsberg
Two young physicists are spending this year as policy fellows in the APS Office of Public Affairs in Washington, DC, as part of a new effort to provide further opportunities for scientists to gain valuable science policy expertise. Steve Pierson and Susan Ginsberg arrived in Washington in January and found themselves plunged headlong into the world of science and government.

A native of North Dakota, Pierson attended Concordia College as an undergraduate before attending graduate school in physics at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, earning his PhD in condensed matter theory in 1993. He took a postdoctoral position at the Naval Research Laboratory and taught basic physics for a semester at Georgetown University before joining the faculty of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, 50 miles outside of Boston, Massachusetts.

Pierson earned tenure at WPI last year and wanted "to do something different" for his upcoming sabbatical year, preferably related to the societal aspects of physics. He heard about the new OPA fellowships through APS associate director of public affairs Francis Slakey, also an adjunct professor of physics at Georgetown, and signed on as a fellow. He has primarily worked on budget issues, organizing Congressional visits for APS members who come to Washington, spearheading letter-writing campaigns, and (with Ginsberg) operating the "Contact Congress" booths at the 2002 March and April meetings, each of which generated more than 1500 letters to Congressional representatives.

Ginsberg is also a native Midwesterner, growing up in Iowa and earning an undergraduate degree in geology from Amherst College before earning a master's in geophysics and a PhD in materials science engineering from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Her thesis focused on studying rocks similar to those on the surface of Venus, and while she enjoyed the research - "I squeezed rocks for a living, how much more fun can you have?" - she decided her particular blend of skills would prove useful in government. While writing her thesis she volunteered in the Minnesota State Legislature working on air toxicity legislation, the first piece of which passed last year. The experience further whetted her appetite for public service.

Ginsberg came to Washington, DC in 2000 as a congressional science fellow with the Materials Research Society and the Optical Society of America, working in the office of Congressman Howard Berman [D-CA] on such issues as intellectual property, Internet policy, telecom, and the PATRIOT Act. Her work at the OPA has spanned such issues as science education, the Government Performance and Results Act (legislation aimed at getting agencies to use metrics for basic science research), and the controversial proposal to construct an underground laboratory at the Homestake gold mine in South Dakota.

As for the future, Pierson plans to return to WPI and resume teaching, although he would love to spend an additional year on the Hill. "As with a postdoc, you spend the first year leaning the new material," he says. "In the second year you're able to take advantage of what you've learned." Ginsberg is undecided about what she'll be doing next, although she enjoys the atmosphere in Washington and would someday - "in the distant future" - like to run for public office.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette