CCST Science Fellows in Training: The Zen of Flexibility and the Capitol Staffer

Photo of Laura McWilliams, PhD, a 2017 CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellow.
Laura McWilliams, PhD

Laura McWilliams, PhD, is a member of the 2017 Class of CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellows. She received her PhD and MS in Chemistry from the University of Oregon, where she studied how gases interact with liquids at industrial and atmospheric surfaces. She completed a master’s certificate at Banaras Hindu University in India, and her BS in Chemistry at Lyon College in Arkansas. McWilliams’ fellowship placement is with the California State Assembly Committee on Utilities and Energy and Assemblymember Chris Holden (D-Pasadena), Committee Chair.

 

“In the Capitol, flexibility is key.”

This is a statement reiterated to me over and over both during my training month and in the subsequent months following my placement in the Assembly. Flexibility.

But what does flexibility actually look like? How do I invoke it daily, and how do I cultivate it moving forward?

I started in the Assembly in mid-December, joining a committee staff of three. This was the committee I interviewed with, folks with whom I had a rapport. In the week following my placement, that rapport strengthened. I could envision what the next year might look like working with them and my role in their dynamic. They, like many offices in the California State Capitol, went out of their way to welcome me. Inviting me out to lunch, taking me to see the new Star Wars film, giving me the low-down on the shortest routes between offices inside “the Building”, and buying me a super-slick Assembly coffee mug for Christmas. This was going to be my home for the next year. I was ready! I was excited! Policy-world, here I come!

Yet, in the Capitol, flexibility is key.

In late December, new chairmanships for Assembly committees were announced by the Speaker of the Assembly. With new committee chairs come inevitable changes. New chairs bring different focus or energy to certain policy issues, requiring committee members and staff to adjust priorities. Committee staff must redouble work efforts to match these changes — and sometimes, they simply move on.

By mid-January, less than a month since I began my placement, both my mentor and the entire committee staff I was assigned to had moved on: they had either switched committees, or left the Building entirely. It was as if one month into your PhD program, you suddenly found yourself working under a different PI and a whole new team of postdocs. Such drastic transitions are not commonplace in academia. But in the Legislature, staff changes are an expected and regular part of life.

Remember, in the Capitol, flexibility is key.

Despite the changes, I remained in my committee as a CCST Science Fellow — and, overnight, I became the point person for committee issues — holding down the office until additional staff joined our committee. I took phone calls. I held meetings. I met high-ranking lobbyists and board presidents and executives. Staff from other offices sought me out on policy ideas. One referred to me as an “expert” on a particular topic (news flash: I had only heard about the policy the previous week). I was left with both an opportunity and a huge mountain to climb.

But, in the Capitol, flexibility is key.

So, I rolled with it, and tried to do my best. Mostly, I recognized and accessed the many resources around me — both my current cohort, as well as CCST Science Fellows alumni, the Chair’s personal staff, and the small group of friends I’ve already made in my policy area.

For comparison, my previous time in academia was stable, at least for personnel changes. I had the same office and the same lab space, the same group of coworkers and colleagues, for six years. Departures came in the form of riotous graduations, which you anticipated many months in advance. There were few personnel surprises, for the most part.

But say it with me: in the Capitol, flexibility is key.

Several months into my placement now, I continue to appreciate how the world of the Capitol is dramatically different from that of academic research. I’m grateful that I was given a lot of responsibility and had to tap into skills I didn’t realize I had. Now, I’m grateful my early responsibilities have shifted, as new, more senior staff have come aboard. I’ve had to remain flexible, and I do my best every day. The Building is a dynamic, hurried place, full of opportunity — and I love it.

— Laura McWilliams

 

Photo of Laura McWilliams, PhD, a 2017 CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellow.
2017 CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellow Laura McWilliams hands a bill across the desk in the California State Assembly. (Photo courtesy of Laura McWilliams)
Photo of a California State Assembly coffee mug. Photo courtesy of Laura McWilliams.
If there’s one other constant in the California State Capitol life, it’s caffeine. (Photo courtesy of Laura McWilliams)

The CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellowship trains scientific thinkers to be policy-savvy, while helping equip California’s lawmakers with science-savvy staff. Follow updates from the CCST Science Fellows on Facebook at facebook.com/ccstfellows and on Twitter @CCSTFellows. Explore the CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellowship at fellows.ccst.us.

Find the California Council on Science and Technology on Facebook at facebook.com/ccstorg, on Twitter @CCSTorg, and on LinkedIn. Learn more about CCST at www.ccst.us.