From Bench Science to Policy Science

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a scientist ... discovering, experimenting, creating. Growing up in Ireland, I looked forward to weekend visits to the university where my father worked as a chemist. His experiments and his stories fascinated me. I used to create my own experiments in my mother?s kitchen. If not experimenting, I was fixing things or taking objects apart and putting them back together. Simply put, the magic of science and engineering and their role in daily life intrigued me.

At the all-girls Catholic high school I attended, other students took home economics while I took science and Latin. As I finished my high school years in Atlanta, Georgia, there was nothing left for me to take by my senior year except physics. It was at that time that I decided to pursue a career in physics.

I enrolled in a women?s college, where I had a double major in fine arts and physics. The physics program was small with only three or four students and a couple of professors. Immediately, I realized this was not high school physics. I struggled in my classes and found myself bored. The physics and chemistry that once so enthralled me suddenly seemed so dry. Even after transferring to a larger, comprehensive university, I still struggled to grasp physics more abstract concepts.

Fortunately, I was required to take other courses to satisfy my degree: English, French, history, psychology, sociology, and so forth. It was during my one and only undergraduate sociology course that my enthusiasm for learning was rekindled. I was so excited about what I was learning in that course that I confidently marched home and stated to my parents that I was switching majors to sociology. The conversation was short-lived. There was no way my father would let me study a "soft" science; I would return to school and continue my studies in physics, and that was final. And so I did. In 1990, I graduated as one of two females in the physics department.

Although I had doubts about studying physics as an undergraduate, I felt obliged to purse a Ph.D. in the field. My dream had always been to teach in a university, to convince other students that the world of science, especially physics, was wonderful. While an undergraduate, I did a co-op at Georgia Tech in a lab doing applied physics and materials science. My bosses were all physicists by degree but there was something different about how they "practiced physics."

When the time came to enroll in graduate school, I was offered a graduate research assistantship to help fund my studies. I enrolled at Georgia Tech in the physics program, fully believing I would obtain a Ph.D. It took less than one quarter to realize that this was not how I wanted to spend my life. Though I loved my assistantship and became proficient with the use of many high-tech instruments for characterizing materials, there was something missing amidst the wonder of the submicron world. I started to wonder how this science impacted the "real world." In the dark silence, alone with the electron microscope, I daydreamed about how I could use my education to bridge those two worlds.

My boss was quick to notice my wavering interest. One day, he lectured me on "following my heart" and about how he wished he had pursued his interests in medical school instead of a Ph.D. in physics. He loved his job, but he could not deny his other love--people. As he talked, I wondered how I could ever convince my father that I no longer wanted a Ph.D. in physics. I wanted to work with people, not scientific instruments. I wanted to study the impact of science and technology on society, not science and technology in isolation from the world.

Life has an interesting way of opening doors. In 1992, I received a master?s degree in applied physics and continued working in that same lab. Two years later, encouraged by budget difficulties and changes in lab mission, I transferred to another lab at Georgia Tech. In the new lab, I shifted gears and began teaching continuing education courses on the environment and conducting environmental assessments in various industrial sectors. It was my first opportunity to integrate the public into my world of science. Funding was still tight, so I began to scour bulletins and Web sites for grant opportunities with a sociotechnical component.

I knew that I was moving closer to my niche. In this position, I developed a new program that forged an active relationship with the surrounding Atlanta community and multiple departments at the university. The Initiative for Community Outreach, Research, and Education (ICORE) not only bridged my interests, but it also helped my small attempt to bridge the "real world" with the "ivory tower," to bring science to the people and people to science.

ICORE includes faculty from the applied research institute at Georgia Tech and from the Schools of Public Policy, Civil and Environmental Engineering, and City Planning. Through the partnership, I discovered that there existed a discipline--public policy--through which I could actually turn my interests in science and technology and society into formal academic training. After almost 10 years of searching, I had finally found where I belonged.

I quit my full-time job as a research scientist and joined the Ph.D. program in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech. Courses were no longer a struggle, learning was no longer shadowed by the feeling that I ought to be doing something else. Perhaps it was because my public policy courses (e.g., research evaluation, research methods and statistics, risk perception and analysis) seemed to have clearer relevance to problems of particular interest to me, or at least taught me skills needed to analyze problems and determine potential solutions.

I have been in the program for 3 years and continue to feel as excited about this discipline as I did the day I applied to it. Surrounded by faculty and students who come from all disciplines and cultures, we share a common interest in policy science. For some, an intense desire to better explain the role of science and technology in developing countries drives their interest. For others, it is a need to understand how science is governed and who decides what research should be funded. For me, it is a desire to delve into the complex issues that arise when the public engages, or seeks to engage, in science and technology decision-making.

In the words of my friend and colleague, Kamau Bobb, public policy "is the critical study of social interactions and the forces that influence them, for the purpose of creating policies that can better our collective condition." To this end, it is my dream and goal to find an academic position in a research university--one that embraces an approach to teaching and learning that encourages students in engineering and science to work side by side with students in the liberal arts to foster the synergism that can only occur when all possibilities are truly considered. If, as a "policy scientist," I am capable of making one tiny contribution to that juncture of science and society, I will regard my winding and shifting educational path as necessary and meaningful, albeit nontraditional.

The author is a Ph.D. candidate in science and technology policy at Georgia Tech. You can write her at

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