Why Undergraduates Can Improve Physics Through Policy

Riley Troyer

A physics undergraduate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a 2017 Mather Science Policy Intern

The AIP Mather Science Policy Internship, is a program funded by Dr. John Mather, the 2006 physics Nobel Laureate and current Senior Project Scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope. Each summer, two physics students are paid a stipend to work as interns for a congressional office in D.C. The Society of Physics Students (SPS) organizes the internship as part of its summer intern program. Over the summer, the Mather interns work fulltime on Capitol Hill and participate in a variety of activities alongside the other SPS interns. The office duties depend on the individual but can be anything from answering phone calls to helping organize hearings. The Mather internship is a great opportunity for students interested in science policy to learn more about the field and potentially jumpstart a career.

During the summer of 2017, I had the opportunity of a lifetime. I was accepted as a Mather intern and travelled to Washington D.C., all the way from Fairbanks, Alaska. Yes, I know, for many people working in Congress is closer to their version of hell, but for myself, it was something I had dreamed about. I am part of a group of undergraduates who are interested in both physics and politics. From my experience, this group is a lot larger than many people realize and it is growing. Unfortunately, there are very few opportunities and very little information for undergraduates interested in science policy. I want to help change that by showing, through my experience, how big of a difference we can have by getting involved with policymaking and why there should be more opportunities like the Mather internship.

First, let me tell you a bit about myself. I’m a pretty “standard” physics student, a white male who started working toward a college degree right after high school. I bet you’ve never heard that story before. To make it a little more interesting, I’m studying at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and was born and raised here, amid natural phenomena which first got me interested in physics. For example, the Aurora is a common occurrence, and we usually experience the point of homogeneous nucleation at least once a year. That’s when at -40 (pick your temperature scale) water vapor can no longer exist in the atmosphere and spontaneously forms into ice fog.

A few years ago my reasons for studying physics started to change. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, probably related to the 2016 election, but I realized that science policy was an actual profession. I was intrigued. Call me cliché, but I’ve always wanted to use physics to improve the world to the greatest extent possible. National policy seemed like something that could have a big impact. I also enjoyed explaining physics and working with other people. I started looking for opportunities. There were a few, but unfortunately, most were unpaid or for graduate students. The AIP Mather Science Policy Internship, which was through the Society of Physics Students summer internship program was really the only good option. I applied, and as you’ve probably guessed, I was selected for one of the two positions. After a long and intense process, I got a position working for the majority side of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. This was exciting, as the Mather internship had never placed someone in either a majority committee or in the Senate.

If it’s been awhile since your last government class, committees are the policy workhorses of Congress. They review nearly all the bills that are introduced in their area of expertise. While Senators form the committee, it is the staff that does most of the work. Everything from crafting legislation and marking up current bills, to organizing hearings (events where experts speak directly to the Senators about a specific topic). The Senate and House committees are separate, and each committee is split into the majority and minority sides. The other Mather Intern was working for the minority side of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

My experience working for the committee was nothing but great. The chair of the committee is Senator Lisa Murkowski, from Alaska. While I don’t agree with all of her positions, I think she is very reasonable and makes decisions with her constituents in mind. This attitude transferred directly into the committee atmosphere and the entire staff was excellent to work with.

So, I had a position as an intern in Congress, but what exactly did I do, and did it matter that I was a physics major? The answer to the second question is a definite yes. As I worked on various tasks for the committee, I found my physics education invaluable. One of my first duties involved summarizing some current high-energy physics projects including DUNE (Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment). I had arrived in the committee office about the same time that the budget request from the Trump Administration had been released. Naturally, the staff was interested in what was contained in the request, in particular for the Department of Energy (DOE), which puts a significant amount of funding towards high-energy physics.

As the summer progressed, I continuously used the skills from my physics major. Energy storage was a subject that the committee staff wanted to know more about. Systems like pumped hydro, compressed air, thermal storage, and batteries. The staff didn’t have time to research this themselves, but I had a technical background, so they gave me the job. I spent a large portion of the summer researching energy storage and explaining the technical ins and outs to a mainly non-scientific audience. In the end, I authored a 15 page report on the issue to help educate the committee staff members.

The report was my largest project, but I also helped with various side tasks. Number crunching in excel, collecting signatures, and staffing the front office, among other typical intern tasks. I’ll admit, my physics skills didn’t directly apply to many of these, however, I never once felt like I was in over my head. Working in the Senate certainly wasn’t easy, but I found that the challenges and stresses of a physics degree had more than prepared me for this work. In fact, this is something I thought a lot about. I believe physics undergraduates interested in policy are perfect candidates for congressional staff positions. Unfortunately, it can be a challenging area to get into, in part because there are very few opportunities for us to explore it.

In the coming years, I would like to see more of the professional physics societies invest in undergraduate internships in policy. Spending a summer on Capitol Hill, I didn’t see as many staffers with scientific backgrounds as I would have liked. I believe that physics students can offer a solution to this problem and improve science awareness in Congress. More internships would allow more students to get their foot in the door for potential careers. If I decide to pursue a career in policy I know that my internship will make getting a job much easier. Getting a job on Capitol Hill often hinges on connections, inside knowledge, and prior experience, all of which I gained from the summer.

I know that quite a few organizations offer science policy fellowships, but from what I can tell, these are exclusively for graduate or postgraduate students. There is certainly a place for fellowships, but I think undergraduates can make just as big of an impact. In regard to congressional staff positions, the earlier you start the better. In addition, the necessary skills don’t extend past the skills of a typical physics undergraduate.

I was surprised this summer by how much power and influence staff members have over policy. Almost all of the Senators statements, questions, briefings, etc. were written and prepared by staff members, the people I was working with. In my opinion, more science policy internships will lead to more scientifically literate people working in Congress. Because of how much power staff members have, I believe that more physics backgrounds in Congress will lead to an increase in funding for the sciences.

Undergraduate physics students can make a huge difference in science policy. We have the skills and knowledge, we have the interest and drive, all that we need is a little help getting started.

I would also like to give an enormous thank you to Dr. John Mather. It was his generous donation that supports this internship and allowed me to have this amazing opportunity.

If you are interested in hearing more about my summer experience, I kept a weekly blog as part of the internship. You can find it here: https://www.spsnational.org/programs/internships/2017/riley-troyer


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