APS News

Wiseman Reflects on Fellowship Year on the Hill

Jennifer WisemanJennifer Wiseman; Photo by Jordan Raddick/APS

Organizing committee hearings, working on legislation to increase federal funding for science, and maintaining business as usual in the midst of increased security concerns were just a few of the issues facing Jennifer Wiseman, the 2002 APS Congressional Fellow. Wiseman spent this past year in Washington, DC, working as a staff member for the House Science Committee.

Wiseman received her BS in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1987 and while still an undergraduate had the distinction of co-discovering a comet later named Comet Wiseman-Schiff, after Wiseman and her collaborator, astronomer Brian Schiff. After that initial success, she went on to graduate school, earning her PhD in astronomy from Harvard University in 1995, with a thesis entitled "Large Scale Structure, Kinematics, and Heating of the Orion Ridge." She then served three years as a Jansky Fellow at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory before taking on a Hubble fellowship at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. At JHU, she studied regions of star formation, specifically the conditions of interstellar gas clouds that lead to the birth of new stars.

Although satisfied with her research career, Wiseman applied for the APS Congressional Fellowship to foster a parallel interest in integrating science into the broader context of public service. She has long been active in public outreach, giving astronomy lectures to elementary, middle and high school students and to general adult audiences since 1993. And spending a year as a congressional fellow gave her the opportunity to have a concrete impact on issues of concern to her.

Her year on the Hill had a rocky start. Shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 rocked the nation, a series of random anthrax outbreaks caused Congress to shut down many of its offices, just as Wiseman and Congressional fellows from other scientific societies were in the process of selecting where they would like to work. She still managed to interview with several offices, and wound up choosing to work on the staff of the House Science Committee. "I felt it was the best opportunity to give me a chance to play a part in a very broad range of science policy issues," she says.

Wiseman worked primarily for two subcommittees. The Subcommittee on Space Aeronautics has jurisdictional oversight over NASA, and Wiseman served as the main contact for issues relating to space science and earth science at the agency. She was also the main contact for issues at the National Science Foundation dealing with physics and astrophysics through her work on the Subcommittee on Research, which has jurisdiction over the NSF. Her responsibilities included organizing Congressional hearings on specific issues and working on science-related legislation, such as H.R. 4664, the NSF reauthorization bill which would put the agency on a track to double its budget over the next five years.

Among the highlights of Wiseman's fellowship experience was putting together a Congressional hearing on science prioritization at NASA. She also had the opportunity to witness firsthand a major reshuffling of the federal government as Congress wrestled with the creation of a Department of Homeland Defense, which will incorporate several areas of jurisdiction formerly under the oversight of other departments and committees. The House Science Committee recommended that the new department appoint an associate administrator of science to help coordinate the research and technology aspects of homeland security. She also met regularly with high-level officials at various agencies, including NASA and the NSF, to discuss a broad range of policy issues.

The APS extended Wiseman's fellowship to the end of the year, when the 107th Congressional session is over, and next year she will return to JHU to continue her research on numerous projects in astrophysics. But her fellowship experience was so positive that she envisions being involved in some way with science policy and public outreach for the rest of her career. "This is the best job I've ever had," says Wiseman "I've enjoyed my work on the Hill and feel like it's a good fit. I was able to learn about and also influence many issues in science policy. That's one of the reasons I wanted to be a Congressional fellow: to gain more breadth of knowledge about science policy than one can get from a strictly research-oriented career."

The APS Congressional Fellowship program is intended to provide a public service by making individuals with scientific knowledge and skills available to members of Congress, few of whom have a technical background. In turn, the program enables scientists to broaden their experience through direct involvement with the legislative and political processes, which ideally will enhance not only their own careers, but the physics community's ability to communicate more effectively (see December 2002 Announcement).