APS News

Two APS–Sponsored Fellows Bring Science to Capitol Hill

Each year APS sponsors one or two scientists enrolled in the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship program. The fellowship places researchers into one-year positions in the government in areas where science and policy overlap. The purpose is twofold. Lawmakers can consult with scientists about technical issues when drafting public policy. At the same time scientists gain experience working with shaping federal policy and conducting policy research. The ultimate aim is to promote positive contact between lawmakers and scientists.

The APS sponsors fellows that work in different congressional offices. This year, APS is sponsoring Virginia Corless at the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee and Arti Garg at the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade.

Virginia Corless had long had interests that extended beyond the confines of the lab. Her fellowship on the Energy Committee has given her a chance to combine some of her interests with her technical background.

Corless received her undergraduate degree in physics at MIT, and then went on to earn her PhD in astrophysics at Cambridge in 2009. She spent the next year doing postdoctoral work in Munich at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, researching the gravitational lensing effects of irregularly shaped intergalactic objects.

At the same time, she stayed active in areas outside of physics research as well. At MIT she minored in applied international studies, taking several political science and theater classes as well. Theater especially has always been a passion of hers, having both acted in and directed plays. While at Cambridge she directed a reinterpreted production of the 10th century miracle play Dulcitius. In it she infused ancient creation myths with modern cosmology, and she incorporated into the play’s epilogue an excerpt from Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg’s book The First Three Minutes about the Big Bang.

Drawing on her theatrical experience, Corless wrote a Back Page for the January 2010 issue of APS News entitled “Theater Deepens the Vision of Physics.”

In her career she has always sought to combine her background in physics with other fields and travel. Over the summer of 2002, Corless taught biology to students in China through MIT’s China Educational Technology Initiative. In the summer of 2004 she won a fellowship from the MIT International Science & Technology Initiatives program to study globular clusters at the Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma in Italy.   

While she was working on her PhD, she spent a month in Washington DC doing an internship at the Science and Technology Policy Institute under the Institute for Defense Analyses. The Institute is one of the major suppliers of research information to the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.  

“I’ve never been a pure-hearted scientist. I’ve always been really torn,” Corless said, “Science policy is a place where so many things intersect.”

At the Energy and Natural Resource Committee, Corless works on a range of energy policy issues. She’s been able to combine her background in physics with the applied international studies minor she received as an undergraduate by focusing on helping to spread energy technology internationally. She has helped to oversee many of the agencies in the government that deal with international development, including the Department of Energy, USAID, and the Commerce Department.

“I was very lucky to end up on the Energy Committee,” she said, “There’s been a lot of very interesting stuff I’ve worked on.”

Though she has contributed to many projects at the committee, much of her work has been on the early development stages and she said that it would take a long time to see their final results.   

“One thing I learned during the fellowship,” she said, “is that 99 percent will come to nothing; but that one percent will have a big impact.”

However Corless is not frustrated with the slow process and the long timeframes.
“Ideas tend to live for a long time around here,” she said, “You never know which ones come to fruition.”

After the fellowship finishes in August, Corless said that she hopes to continue working on international energy issues. She said ultimately she hopes to keep working to spread the next generation of energy technology to the developing world.

Arti Garg sees the importance of having many different perspectives shape public policy. She said that her fellowship on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on terrorism nonproliferation and trade has given her the chance to offer more scientific input into internationally focused legislation.

For the fellowship, Garg works as a science legislative assistant on the subcommittee staff. This year is the first time in recent memory that either the subcommittee or the full committee has had a science fellow (there is an AAAS science fellow serving on the full committee this year as well). As a legislative assistant, Garg has already done much with the committee, including preparing background material, setting up hearings, organizing briefings, and working on legislation. It’s been a busy nine months at the subcommittee. They have had five hearings on a wide scope of topics including foreign food assistance, labor rights, aerospace export controls, bioterrorism and nuclear cooperation.

“I felt that there were a lot of policy-related issues that have a lot of technological underpinnings,” Garg said about why she first applied for the program, “There’s a lot of stuff that happens in Washington and a lot of it affects science.”

She first heard about the Congressional Science Fellowships while working as a science policy fellow at the National Academies. While at the Academies, she worked on a study about how the NSF can prioritize its funding and on ways for the InterAcademy Council to council to put together a metric to gauge a country’s science and technology capabilities.

Garg received her BS in physics along with an AB in English from Stanford University. She continued on there to earn a masters in aeronautical & astronautical engineering before moving on to the University of Washington to earn her masters in physics, and her PhD in physics from Harvard in 2008.

After defending her thesis, Garg did her postdoctoral work at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. There she split her time between the Institute for Geophysics and Planetary Physics, which built on her PhD research into gravitational lensing effects of dark matter, and the Center for Global Security Research, where she worked on developing a remote surveillance system.

Before working with the National Academies, Garg didn’t have much background in public policy, having only taken a single US political science course as an undergrad. Later, she audited John Holdren’s course at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. However, her research into astrophysics took her to the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory and Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. There she was able to experience firsthand how international policies directly affected people’s lives, such as how the observatories are run, who are issued visas to work, and how Chile was able to use the telescopes to build up its own research base.

“I don’t feel like it’s made my life impossible. But it’s important to recognize that I don’t have the experience that other people do that I work with.” Garg said, adding that while there she’s always been able to learn what she needed to know, “It’s not bad, it’s just different.”

Garg is still unsure what she plans to do after the fellowship ends. She is currently on leave from Lawrence Livermore and might return after she finishes in Washington. She is also looking at other avenues as well, especially areas in the government that have been using technology to address climate change or humanitarianism.

“One thing I’ve learned about myself in the last nine months is that I’m OK now not being a research scientist anymore, but I do enjoy doing a lot of the nitty-gritty technical stuff,” Garg said.

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Editor: Alan Chodos