Science Policy’s Frontline

I was intrigued when I read an article in Science magazine about science assistants at the National Science Foundation (NSF), “On-the-Job Training Slots Open Doors, Lighten Load” by Jeffrey Mervis. In many ways, they are science policy’s frontline, facilitating many of the activities of the senior program officers. From the director and board to the directorates and offices at NSF, these specialists play a vital role in making sure the science policy “machine” runs smoothly (See NSF’s organizational chart.)

At the time, I was unaware this opportunity existed for those with science backgrounds, but without doctoral degrees. Unlike a program assistant, the position of science assistant requires a science background. Since being a science assistant sounded like a great career option, I contacted Jeannine Cody, one of the women of color the Science article focused on to ask questions about her job. She graciously allowed me to speak with her and five other dynamic NSF science assistants of color at the NSF building in Arlington, Virginia. They offered their inside views on this unique profession.

Q: Why did you decide to become a science assistant?

García-Ojeda: I come from Puerto Rico, so when I came here it was hard for me to find a job. When they offered me the position I was so happy. It gives you the opportunity to work with great minds.

Cody: The knowledge the senior program officers have of the community is helpful, especially if you want to work in that community. You pick up a lot of knowledge from them.

Jackson: Besides knowledge you also have a lot of networking opportunities you probably wouldn’t find in the sciences.

Cody: At meetings you actually know people. Working with them for 3 or 4 days allows you to talk with them on proposals. They remember you. It makes a big difference.

Harris: Since I’m still in school, I’m able to take advantage of the different directorates and not just my own directorate. It helps me stay abreast of what’s going on in my field and in science in general.

Brown: I enjoy talking with the different program officers and learning the various paths they took to get their Ph.D.s. You also see the results of getting that graduate degree through them and the amount of influence they have. They keep asking you, “So what are you doing?” They help you. They guide you.

Q: Is the support you receive purely on a professional basis or is it financial as well?

Brown: There are both, depending on the different directorates. It’s a mentoring process. There are different programs where I can go and meet the principal investigators working on subjects of which I’m interested.

McCormick: I worked at NSF as an undergrad when I was in the “Stay in School Program”. I left NSF after finishing school to see what career direction I would take. I still wanted to stay in science, but I wasn’t sure whether it would be research or medicine. Having a bachelor’s degree, I just didn’t want to be filing. I wanted to feed my mind. Here I get to meet scientists and professors from various universities.

Q: What are your responsibilities as a science assistant? Do they change per department?

García-Ojeda: Responsibilities vary depending on the directorate. But we assist and do special jobs for the program officers, like participating in meetings and setting up panels.

Cody: If the program officers are busy, we go to other meetings within the foundation and take notes for them. Sometimes we attend offsite events, especially career workshops, and public outreach. We also write internal paragraphs (snapshots of successful research) to present to the directorate.

Harris: In my division I pull information from the internal systems to maintain a spreadsheet on internal funds. I report findings and facilitate the program to help everything run smoothly.

Brown: We serve as the contact people for the principle investigator. Program officers rely on us to communicate.

Jackson: Our positions are more than just administrative work though. This is the implementation of cutting-edge science research. This is what’s going to be funded for science from a government perspective. We help alleviate the massive number of proposals to program officers and help make the decisions that ultimately affect science, such as helping to identify reviewers.

Harris: It’s a process and everyone’s critical to the process.

Q: Who should apply for this position?

McCormick: Someone with a love of science is important for this position. I feel that more young people and more minorities are needed in science. It’s a great position and agency to contribute to the broader scientific community. NSF is a great place to start your career.

Jackson: I think it’s ideal for someone who wants a professional position, but they’re still striving for something else. Many of these positions are not permanent so you have to think what’s next.

Harris: I think this is a good transition position. You can go to meetings and conferences and find out what you want to do. This position gives you an opportunity to experience science, education, and even social and behavioral economics.

Cody: I’d say the most important thing is learning how to write a grant and be a better writer overall. You read the proposals and sit in on the panels and see what happens. You find out what the panelists are looking for. No matter where you go–in science or out of science–you’ll bring the experience of how to write an effective grant. You’ll also a get a broader view of science policy outside of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). We desperately need more minorities in the biological sciences, not just medicine.

García-Ojeda: I would recommend this position to someone like me. When I came here I didn’t have any experience. I had just graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree. When you come here you get that experience and you move on.

Cody: As you sit through the panels, people will try to recruit you for their lab because they understand 1) you’re a minority and 2) you’ve worked at NSF. It’s a great résumé-builder.

Q: Do you get solicited to work in a lab even if you’re not in the same field?

Cody: Regardless, science is science. As they say, the questions are the same.

García-Ojeda: Someone told me, come get your master’s degree and then come work for me. You get your Ph.D. with me.

Q: So, tell me about the panels? What’s the experience like? What does it involve?

Q: Are you in charge of the panel?

Science Assistants: No!

Brown: I’d say we coordinate the panel.

Jackson: Everyone is in charge of their individual responsibilities. These people are reviewing hundreds of proposals over a 3-day period. It’s amazing how they’re able to rapidly switch gears from one topic to a totally different topic in just a few seconds.

Brown: The panel is the outcome of prep work: getting the proposals ready, making sure the panelists have the proposals, making sure the reviews are in, the final board, and the layout. I think the process is the most rewarding part.

Harris: The panel is a whole-office effort.

Cody: We take the minutes by law and it helps to have a science background when technical terms are flying around. I know many of these applicants are going for tenure. They’ve got mortgages and homes and so I always think, “what can I do to help on this end?”

García-Ojeda: I remember with my first panel, I was impressed with a particular panelist. I researched her work and decided I wanted to work with her.

Q: What are your career goals since these are primarily temporary positions?

Harris: I’m finishing my doctorate in education and human development. My focus is adult learning, so I’m hoping to work with government policy programs. I work in biology, but I also work with the human resources cluster, so it intrigues me to see successful proposals and good mentoring for our young adults. That has prompted me to continue my career.

Brown: I’ve always wanted to go into etymology and parasitology. I’ve been trying to combine those and I found an intensive internship under the guidance of Dr. Dailey Murray, a parasitologist at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California. Hopefully, this internship may turn out to be a program for future science assistants at NSF like the fieldwork I’m currently participating in with Dr. Jim Harvey and his studies on harbor seals. I’m trying to get an internship at Sausalito through NSF. NSF is supporting me in every way possible, which is great.

McCormick: I want to go on and get my master’s degree. I’m just torn between which direction I want to go. I love biological research as well as medicine. I would like to work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also.

Cody: Before I went to grad school, I interned at the Smithsonian for 2 years studying the giant squid. In grad school, I went into regular biology and got out of phylogenetic systematics, the study and classification of the distribution and diversity of organisms. However, working in systematics again has rekindled my interest in it. Because NSF allows you to do independent research and development projects, once a week, I get to go to the Smithsonian and work with Dr. Clyde Roper and others at the systematics lab. I’m not sure if I want to get my Ph.D. yet because I’m concerned about grants and teaching, but I have considered teaching at community college. I love teaching. Eventually, I think I’ll go into that or go into bioinformatics where you don’t need a Ph.D., but you can still do research.

García-Ojeda: I’m attracted by biodefense with everything going on and security being an issue right now. I want to get my master’s degree and then I can figure out what I want to do.

Q: What advice do you have for other students and scientists of color who want to pursue a position as a science assistant?

Harris: Follow your heart. I went to medical school first and my heart wasn’t in it. You really need to be self-aware of who you are and what you want to do in the long-term. I would advise anyone in the sciences not to look at just one aspect of science, but to look at the whole range.

Cody: I was originally pre-med, but I got into political science where the mentoring was much stronger. Follow your heart, but also find a good mentor because that makes a big difference. If I had the mentors that I had in graduate school that I had in undergrad, I would have been in science 10 years ago.

Brown: After I finished undergrad I worked in an NIH lab. I worked with good people there, some of whom remain my mentors, but I found I needed to interact with other people. You shouldn’t feel you need to be locked into any one position.

Jackson: I mentor a group of kids and I always tell them to dare to be different. As an undergraduate, we were allowed to create our own major. I was a humanities major with a strong background in science. You can’t let the curriculum define you.

McCormick: Sometimes science is looked at as such a difficult field, but if you have an interest you should pursue it. The minority Stay in School program allows us to establish our self-identity, especially by including African-American studies in the curriculum. Also, starting young makes a big difference.

García-Ojeda: I would encourage students to look for opportunities. There are so many out there for minorities.

Final Thoughts

Every science assistant I interviewed relishes the intellectual stimulation and freedom of their jobs. They are also aware of the clout and responsibility that goes along with their positions. Consequently, many also take the opportunity to “give back” to other persons of color in the scientific community by encouraging minority reviewers to develop into panelists and recruiting principal investigators from minority serving institutions for panels.

It’s sad that there aren’t more opportunities like this for those who love science and have the talent, but no terminal degree. It’s difficult to find a position where science majors are respected more for their “intangible skills” such as organizational prowess than for their pipetting and buffer preparation ability. However, as these six science assistants have pointed out, an interest in science shouldn’t “pigeon-hole” anyone. Students of color are free to develop their own niche, like anyone else. Figure out what makes you happy professionally and find people or positions that will help you to make it happen.

Clinton Parks is a staff writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at .

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