Perspectives on Policy: The Undergraduate Internship

While for many physicists the opportunity to participate in the political process may be a result of their career experience, there is no limit to how early one can find themselves making a contribution. The AIP Mather Policy Internship awarded by the Society of Physics Students is designed to give undergraduates the opportunity to get involved right at the heart of science policy in Washington D.C., and recent intern Nikki Sanford shares some of her experience with us here.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself. (Education, research experience, etc.)
My name is Nikki Sanford and I’m currently a student at William & Mary Law School. I graduated in May 2013 from High Point University with Bachelors degrees in Physics, Mathematics, and a minor in Chemistry. I spent a summer at Duke University through the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program, and worked in the High Energy Physics Group on computer simulations for SNOLab's Helium and Lead Observatory (HALO) neutrino detector. I had opportunities to present at several national conferences, including the American Physical Society — Division of Nuclear Physics and the American Association of Physics Teachers. This past summer I worked at the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology as a Mather Intern through the American Institute of Physics — Society of Physics Students (SPS) Intern Program.

Why were you interested in pursuing an internship in science policy?
Science and mathematics have always fascinated me because they answer the question “why” and form the basis of all systems and reason. As I got further involved in research, I saw firsthand many of the amazing discoveries and technology that can arise. I also started to see how prevalent and intricately connected these innovations are to our society as a whole. Needless to say, I became interested in science policy in order to explore the relationship between science and society, and their influence on each other. The SPS Internship in the Science Committee matched those interests perfectly, and turned out to be the optimum introduction into the field.

What were the pieces of legislature being examined while you were working in the House?
I had the opportunity to work on pieces stemming from all five Subcommittees: energy, environment, research & technology, oversight, and space. Some topics of Hearings/Markups that I both worked on and attended were the proposed reorganization of STEM education, the NASA Authorization Act, EPA Investigations of Hydraulic Fracturing, the achievability of new ozone standards, and the Dept. of Energy Science & Technology Priorities.

What similarities and differences do you see between the scientific and legislative processes?
In science, an observation sparks a question, which leads to a thoroughly designed experiment and analysis to confirm a hypothesis. The legislative process is nearly identical, but deals with societal observations rather than purely physical ones. After an issue is identified, much research and discussion is generated to determine the best approaches to solve it — the hypothesis. Legislation acts as an experiment, and the outcomes of which will confirm or reject the prediction.

Have your experiences in science policy influenced your pursuit of a law degree? In what way?
My science policy experiences have proved to be extremely beneficial towards my law studies. Researching topics, writing memos analyzing issues, and conducting outreach and interviews are several skills that I gained throughout my work in the Science Committee. Incidentally, those are some of the essential legal skills that are being taught and strengthened in law school. It has been immensely helpful that I've come in with a handle on those basics, and experience with how they are utilized in an fast-paced work environment.

What memory of your work with science policy stands out to you the most?
My interactions with several inspiring and influential leaders are extremely memorable. I had the opportunity to have breakfast in the Capitol with physicist and Congressman Bill Foster, and the Nobel Laureate Physicist Dr. John Mather, to discuss their work and the influence/importance of their science backgrounds. I also was fortunate enough to meet and speak with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson, and Bill Nye the Science Guy!

Furthermore, the Hearings and Markups that I participated in definitely stand out as well. I directly saw how some of my work influenced the topics raised, or questions asked by Congressmen, and it was incredible to see them and the legislative process in action.

For more on Nikki’s experiences, and those of other Society of Physics Students interns, please visit

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.