CCST Science Fellows in Training: Making the Transition from Science to Policy

Teresa Feo, PhD

Teresa Feo, PhD,is a member of the 2018 Class of CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellows. Feo received a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Yale University, a BA in Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley, and she most recently completed a research fellowship at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Feo’s fellowship placement is with the California State Senate Office of Research.

 

Ever since I accepted a position as a CCST Science Fellow, my friends, family, and colleagues have been asking me the same question, “Why did you step away from a successful career in science to take a year-long fellowship in state government?” As I try to  think of an original response, I can’t help but return to an old saying from my dissertation advisor, “Academics are like houseplants,” he would quip, “they need to be repotted every few years to thrive.”

The truth is, throughout my career I have taken advantage of the opportunity to plant myself in new experiences. As an organismal biologist who specializes in birds, I traveled internationally to the lush cloud forests of Costa Rica and the arid Atacama Desert in Chile to study the courtship displays of hummingbirds. During my research program, I decided to spend an entire year of graduate school at another university — on the other side of the country — in order to collect some much-needed data. I continually strived to strike up collaborations with colleagues from different institutions, in different fields of study, and in different countries in order to figure out how birds use feathers in flight, color production, and sound production.

Teresa on her way to study birds at field site during a research trip to Costa Rica. Photo: Anand Varma.
Teresa taking part in an ‘Elevator Pitch’ exercise during the CCST Science Fellows month-long policy training boot camp.

I was initially drawn to the CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellowship because it was an opportunity to try out something completely different — a chance to not only witness firsthand the role of science in policymaking, but to contribute directly to science informing policy.

It was a chance to repot myself in a whole new house.

As a CCST Science Fellow, I have been working in the Senate Office of Research, a nonpartisan office that responds to direct requests from senators and senate committees for background and subject-specific research. As anticipated, I didn’t get very many requests relating to hummingbird courtship displays or feathers. My ornithological expertise was primarily called upon to identify the owners of the nests that appeared on the office windowsills this spring. (For my fellow birders: the answer was always either MODO or HOSP.)

Teresa studying hummingbird specimens at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Instead of applying my specific subject expertise, I took all of the skills I had carefully honed from years of scientific research and applied them to in-depth policy research. I found myself tackling a number of policy issues, ranging from natural resources, water, wildfires, and environmental quality to public health, professional licensing, and veterans affairs. A year ago, I knew little or nothing about these topics, but now I can discuss them at length for hours. In the Senate Office of Research, I saw situations where science informed the policy discussion — and I also saw where it was still needed. Many a day spent investigating an issue area ended with me throwing my hands in the air and lamenting, “Why has no one done the research to answer my question!” Most importantly, through my fellowship I learned that my training as a research scientist does have value outside of academia.

It was hard — and a little bit scary — to leave behind the research scientist “pot” that I had been comfortably occupying for the last few years, but the challenge of the fellowship was part of the appeal, and the opportunity to learn something new was too exciting pass up. I am amazed at how much I have grown both personally and professionally over my fellowship year. I can’t wait to take what I have learned as a CCST Science Fellow and use it to thrive in my next opportunity.

 

Teresa (left) navigating the ropes course during the Science Fellows annual career training retreat at Lake Tahoe with CCST Interim Executive Director Amber Mace (right).

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. 

The California Council on Science and Technology is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established via the California State Legislature in 1988. CCST engages leading experts in science and technology to advise state policymakers ― ensuring that California policy is strengthened and informed by scientific knowledge, research, and innovation. Find CCST on Facebook at facebook.com/ccstorg, on Twitter @CCSTorg, and on LinkedIn. Discover how CCST makes California’s policies stronger with science at www.ccst.us. Celebrate the 30th anniversary of CCST all year long by following #CCST30th on Twitter.