The “Advocating for Science” symposium and workshop is taking place at MIT September 16-17, 2016, to enable junior scientists to advocate for science. The purpose of the meeting is to give an opportunity to those with a passion for advocating for science to develop their advocacy skills, meet like-minded junior scientists and develop focused efforts together to effect positive change.
To try to extend this meeting beyond the Boston area, we recently put out an application call for travel scholarships for attendees from further afield. Following interviews with our Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute Travel Award Recipient, Alex Erwin, and Advocating for Science Travel recipients Holly Hamilton, Katherine Simeon, and Adriana Bankston, here is our next interview with Tess Eidem:
Tell us a little about your career path so far and what you are currently working on.
I have always been curious about the world around me, and science has given me the methods, tools, and logic to tinker with and test my curiosities. As an undergrad at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, I had several great opportunities to participate in a wide variety of research. With the outdoors as my laboratory, I spent time scouring the prairie documenting and studying beetles and birds, and as a member of the Nebraska Institutional Development Award Program (IDeA) Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) Program, I was able to work in biomedical research labs investigating tiny molecules within the cell. These experiences got me thinking like a scientist, and I wanted more.
Continuing on that quest, I concentrated on the molecular level as a graduate student under the mentorship of Dr. Paul Dunman at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and as a visiting student at the University of Rochester. I fell in love with RNA molecules, the “messengers” of genetic signals in the cell. These messages must be made and destroyed for every living cell on the planet to function. However, the RNA destruction machinery differs significantly in bacteria from the machinery found in humans, making this process a potential target for antimicrobial development. My graduate studies made me a scientist, and I continue to hone my scientific skillset as a postdoctoral fellow in Drs. Jim Goodrich and Jen Kugel’s Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder. My interests are still centered on how RNA is made and broken down, but now I focus on a novel RNA copying mechanism in mammals. RNA copying is a gene regulation mechanism in other species of animals, plants, and fungi, but it is poorly understood in mammalian cells. I continue to investigate this activity, which has the potential to change the way we think genes are regulated in mammals.
How did you get interested in advocacy work/science policy?
I have a passion for inspiring the next generation of scientists and work as a CU Boulder Science Discovery Instructor, a CU Portal to the Public Science Ambassador, and the Director of Community Outreach and Education for the Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) Group. In these positions, I have developed fun and interactive activities and coursework to make my research and other scientific concepts approachable to K-12 students and the general public. Such activities include a “Transcribe your Genes!” board game, where each player acts as RNA polymerase, and he or she must make the gene products the cell needs to survive. I believe that these outreach efforts are essential to make me a more well-rounded scientist, to improve my science communication skills, and to gain new perspective on my work.
Part of being a science advocate is also pushing for change within the scientific community. In the WiSE Group and as a member of the Postdoctoral Association of Colorado (PAC), I strive to provide networking opportunities and career and skill development workshops to all of our members, with emphasis on including women and underrepresented groups to increase support and diversity in science. I also advocate for internal changes that will increase the quality of life for scientists, specifically to improving postdoc-relevant issues, such as child care, overtime pay, and other benefits. Improving the environment in which we conduct our research is sure to improve the quality of our science.
What experiences have you had in policy so far and how have they shaped/changed your scientific interests/aspirations?
Although I do not have formal science policy experience, I recently helped organize the WiSE First Annual Science Communication Symposium. This event was a TED-talk like seminar series and workshop intended to increase science communication between departments at CU Boulder, showcase the research of WiSE members, make that work approachable to the open public, and get the participants outside of their scientific comfort zones. Our keynote speaker, Abby Watrous, spoke of her time working for the government as a AAAS Congressional Science Fellow and a Fellow at the Department of Energy. Her experiences showed me how scientists can use their experience and knowledge to enact policy changes that directly affect people’s lives in a positive way, and I am inspired to do the same.
What are your future goals?
Currently, I am on the academic track to continue my studies as a postdoc, and with a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work, I hope to eventually run my own laboratory. Living on the scientific frontier is thrilling and fulfilling—I love pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. However, as scientists, it is also important that we share this knowledge with others inside and outside the scientific community. It is essential to reach out to the general public and make these concepts approachable and understandable, and heck, maybe even fun to learn! Communicating scientific concepts will also allow the general public to cast an informed and educated vote on important policy issues. As I develop as a scientist, I am beginning to understand that seeing the spark of understanding and excitement in someone’s eyes is equally fulfilling as discovering a new biological process, and I am fortunate to have supportive mentors that encourage me to balance my bench work with my outreach efforts. No matter which path I choose, my goals are to always keep learning and applying a scientific approach to the challenges I face.
What do you hope to get out of coming to the meeting in Boston?
After attending the meeting, I believe I will have a better understanding of the path to becoming a science advocate, including funding mechanisms and support programs and developing a network of other scientists that share similar values. I want to use the knowledge and network from this meeting to make real changes to the scientific community and the general public by making science more approachable and advocating for integrity and fairness inside and outside of the scientific community.