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My name is Ashley Finger and presently I am a Fulbright Research Fellow at the University of Luxembourg studying thin-film solar cells at the Laboratory for Photovoltaics for one year, after which I will be attending the University of Virginia School of Law. Almost always, my decision to attend law school is met with surprise and confusion, but to me the transition seems natural. With my wide range of interests and intellectual restlessness, I found that I fit perfectly in the niche between science and law-science policy. This past summer I had the privilege of working in the field of science policy with the United States House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology through the Society of Physics Students summer internship program.
Leading up to the internship, I was an undergraduate studying physics and mathematics at Davidson College where I was actively involved in several environmental organizations and worked in the library as a peer research advisor. I became involved with Davidson’s SPS chapter in my junior year, when not long after officially declaring my major I received the opportunity to attend the 2012 Quadrennial Physics Congress, where I was introduced to the greater physics community. I left PhysCon completely reassured in my decision to major in physics and excited for the opportunities ahead. My positive experience there was instrumental in my decision to pursue research and an undergraduate Honors thesis the following year. In turn, my research experience shaped my career path. Presenting at conferences built my confidence and my excitement over the project itself (the movement of charge carriers in GaAs) inspired me to apply for the Fulbright grant. Undertaking long term research also allowed me to realize that while I was enjoying my project, academia was not my calling. Fortunately and remarkably, the same conferences I attended to present academic research introduced me to alternative career paths such as science policy and opportunities like the SPS internship.
I applied to the science policy internship position with the hope that it would reaffirm my decision to diverge from scientific research and to go to law school in order to pursue a career along the boundary of science and law. Within the first week, it did.
The work that the professional staff on the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology takes on is impressive. They work on issues that range from particle physics and human spaceflight to environmental protection and transportation technology. I loved the energy, the sense of urgency, and the vast range of topics and tasks. I did everything from collect background information, write memorandums, and engage in social media outreach. Even towards the end of my ten weeks when I approached some semblance of a routine, there was always something new and different.
Over the course of the summer, several things struck me with respect to the intersection between science and law. Most people view the two as completely distinct entities. We tend to separate “right brained” and “left brained” activities, the verbal and the mathematical intellect. To me, they were different but never distinct — I’ve always loved writing as much as mathematics, reading as much as laboratory experiments — but I was led to believe that was unusual. Here, on the committee, a crossover understanding and passion for both science and law was the norm. In the office there are PhD scientists working to write laws, and lawyers invested in science.
The connection between the scientific and legal mind-set extends beyond certain individuals “bridging the gap,” however. If you think about it, the process of writing a law has remarkable parallels to publishing scientific research. You begin with the past — reading relevant literature and determining where the issue at hand stands in the present. Then you spend some time determining “what next?” You ask yourself: where are the problems? Where are the gaps in our understanding? What can I do now that will benefit others the most in the future? At this point, the physicist sets off deriving equations and performing experiments while the legislators read and write, but after a period of time the two experiences re-converge with a draft at which point they obtain feedback from their peers, re-think, and re-work until there is a final version presentable to the public eye.
Perhaps the largest difference occurs at this stage. While some scientists may say that their laboratories are “political” it can in no way compare to the ideological hurdles in Congress. In science, your work may be less ground-breaking than you had hoped but in Congress, your work can become void due a tangentially related ideological belief. You also must face a wider range of perspectives and agendas. Whereas scientific motivation is primarily factual and evidence based, legal motivation taps into emotions and balances on interpersonal relations and societal context.
In the committee, even the most abstract scientific research becomes tangible in terms of societal benefits. The job of a congressman is to represent the people in his or her district and so they are constantly thinking in terms of benefits to their constituents. Often, it is not obvious that funding Fermilab or the James Webb Space Telescope will yield benefits beyond scientific discovery, but in order to convince the government to continue funding a scientific project, the benefits to greater society must be demonstrated. In congressional hearings, therefore, you hear about how CERN invented the worldwide web, or how human spaceflight inspires the next generation of scientists. In the Committee science becomes, more so than in the eyes of the general public or the confines of a laboratory alone, a force for driving our nation forward.
Granted, there are many political hurdles, and granted our government is in a time of extreme partisanship and public criticism; but even now, the intermixing of science and law provides a powerful point of departure for scientific and societal advancement.
Ashley Finger is currently a Fulbright Research Fellow at the University of Luxembourg studying thin-film solar cells and will attend the University of Virginia School of Law.