How I Got Started
It all began with an email from ASCB Program Manager Fabiola Chacon asking if any members of the ASCB committees (I am a member of the Minorities Affairs Committee) were interested in joining the Council for Capitol Hill Day in May 2018. At first, I did not give much thought to it mostly because I had no prior experience and because it would have meant traveling to Washington, DC, during final exam week. I was also unsure if I possessed the necessary skills to be an effective advocate. But having attended a presentation on science advocacy by ASCB Director of Public Policy and Media Relations Kevin Wilson at the California State University Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology Faculty Consensus Group’s annual meeting the previous year, I was curious to learn more and contribute to ASCB’s advocacy efforts. So, after thinking about it for about a week and discussing it with some of my colleagues, I decided to go for it. From then onward, everything developed organically on its own with very modest effort from me (except for enduring the long flight and delays due to bad weather), ultimately culminating in a visit by congressperson Rep. Alan Lowenthal to my lab in November 2018.
The Hill Day
On the morning of the Hill Day, Kevin briefed us on the main talking points and the issues to emphasize during our meetings. We were divided into teams of three to four scientists, with each team shepherded by a member of the ASCB staff. In our meetings, most of which were with staffers of senators or representatives, we thanked them for, and asked them to continue, their support for funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). We also emphasized the key role immigration plays in bringing some of the best and most talented students and postdocs from across the world to our research laboratories, which is important to maintain the leadership status of the United States in scientific research.
One of these meetings was scheduled with Rep. Alan Lowenthal, who represents my district (the 47th California district, which includes Long Beach). Coincidentally, for 28 years before transitioning to politics he was also a professor of Community Psychology at the California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), where I teach. Although I did not get to meet the congressman that day, this connection made a great conversation point between his staffer, Shane Trimmer, and me. Shane expressed an interest in planning a visit for the congressman to my lab, and I gladly offered to organize one.
Follow Up: Scheduling and Planning the Visit for the Congressman
After the initial “thank you” email, I followed up with another email to Shane in early September to see if the congressman was available to visit in October. Shane forwarded the email to the local office staffer, Clayton Heard, who scheduled it tentatively for November. It was literally that easy! Rep. Lowenthal’s staff was very friendly and prompt to communicate with. They organized everything at their end very efficiently, which made planning things at our end equally smooth.
Once the visit was confirmed for November 9, preparing for the visit was also very straightforward. I first informed my college and university administrators, all of whom showed appreciation for my efforts and offered great support for the visit. I planned the visit to be low key (no media presence) and focused the one hour we had almost entirely on my lab, research, and students. We got a lab coat for the congressman with his name and CSULB logo embroidered on it. My students posted welcome messages in the lab and also designed a “certificate of appreciation” for Rep. Lowenthal.
We spent the first few minutes of the congressman’s visit in the college conference room with the vice president of university relations & development, the dean, and my department chair discussing the total NIH and NSF funding CSULB receives per year. We also discussed the role that various student-training programs such as BUILD, MARC, and RISE play in providing research opportunities for minority students. We then headed to my lab, where I first gave an elevator pitch on my research followed by a tour of the lab including some hands-on action for the congressman (wearing his brand new lab coat) looking at cancer cell lines under the microscope. He took great interest in learning about the origin of the cell lines and how they were maintained and used in our research.
We followed it up with a discussion on the importance of continuous funding to the NIH and NSF for unimpeded progress in research as well as for training of the future biomedical and biotechnological workforce. I also brought up the benefits of maintaining a diverse and global population of students and postdocs in our laboratories while sharing my own journey from an international student to an assistant professor. During our Hill Day participation, many ASCB members had expressed concerns about a declining number of applications from foreign students and postdoctoral fellows to institutions across the United States, which they believe is due to the current negative rhetoric about immigration in general. As one of the many individuals who came to the United States as international students and are now serving as teachers and mentors in U.S. institutions, I made a case for the positive influence and role immigration plays in our higher education system. Congressman Lowenthal thanked me for bringing this issue to his notice, as he also felt that a decline in the interest of foreign students in applying to our universities was not in our country’s best interests and needs to be addressed.
Finally, he also interacted with my students and listened to their concerns about the affordability and accessibility of a college education. On our walk back to his car, the congressman told me that his visit had been most informative and assured me of his continuing support to research funding and programs that promote research opportunities for students from all backgrounds. I offered to provide assistance should he need advice on any biomedical– or cell biology–related questions that may help him make an informed decision on a bill or policy concerning funding and research.
Lessons Learned and Looking Forward
Overall, it was a remarkable experience and surprisingly simple! The whole process has positively influenced and reinforced my belief that it is very important for scientists to take an active part in science advocacy. My participation in the Hill Day was very informative and I not only got initiated in advocacy but also enjoyed networking with other ASCB members. Organizing Rep. Lowenthal’s visit to my lab was a direct result of having visited his office and connected with his staffers on Capitol Hill.
Even though Rep. Lowenthal is already a supporter of research, I believe his visit to my lab has further strengthened his support and made him aware of some of the key issues that are of concern to the scientific community. I highly encourage those who wish to be involved in advocacy to reach out to the ASCB Public Policy staff. Many thanks especially to Kevin Wilson, Coalition for the Life Sciences Director Lynn Marquis, and ASCB CEO Erika Shugart, who were instrumental in educating, encouraging, and helping me from navigating through my maiden Hill Day to organizing the congressman’s visit successfully. This entire experience has honed my newfound advocacy skills, which I plan to develop further by continuing to assist the ASCB Public Policy office in raising awareness about any issue, bills, or policies that may affect the scientific community.
About the Author:
Deepali Bhandari is assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at California State University, Long Beach. She is a member of the ASCB Minorities Affairs Committee.