The Columns

Faculty Focus: Tyler Lorig Ruth Parmly Professor of Psychology, American Association for the Advancement of Science Congressional Fellow

— by on September 5th, 2016

Tyler Lorig

In 1973, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) began a fellowship program that placed seven scientists in congressional offices on Capitol Hill. Over the ensuing years, with support from partner societies and sponsoring agencies, the Science and Technology Policy Fellowship (STPF) program grew into one that places hundreds of fellows in Congress and the executive branch every year.

This year, among the 280 fellows — and one of only two sponsored by the AAAS — is Tyler Lorig, Washington and Lee University’s Ruth Parmly Professor of Psychology. Lorig has spent most of his fellowship, which began Sept. 1, 2015, working in the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California).

Sage Russell, associate director of the STPF, said AAAS fellows must impress the selection committee with a combination of exceptional verbal and written communication skills, leadership potential, a commitment to applying one’s science to serving the public, and analytical and problem-solving skills. Once the fellows arrive in D.C. at the beginning of the fellowship, they’re given a crash course in policy process and federal government. They then go through the procedure that matches them with the legislator for whom they will work for the remainder of their fellowship.

As Lorig’s experience draws to a close (his fellowship ends Aug. 31), he found some time to answer questions about his adventures on Capitol Hill.

Q: How did you end up with Sen. Feinstein’s office? When the placement period came around after orientation, did you express an interest in working for her, did her office reach out to you, or was it mutual?

A: Let me start with a little background. Last spring, I was selected as one of two Congressional Science and Technology Policy Fellows sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, the largest scientific organization in the world and the publisher of the journal Science). For the last 40 years or so, AAAS has run a program that brings scientists to Washington to learn how science and government policy interact. Over the years, a number of other organizations have joined in and sponsored their own scientists as fellows. This year, a total of 280 science fellows (including a former W&L neuroscience major and recent Ph.D., Nisha Kaul Cooch ’05!) met in a ballroom near Dupont Circle for training that was provided by AAAS. For 10 days we heard from scientists, staffers, ambassadors, professors, the president’s science advisor, members of Congress — and a few people who were several of those things at the same time — on the ways and means of life in the federal government. Most of the fellows in that room were headed to placements at government agencies like CDC, NIH, NASA or USAID. A few of us (31) were headed for more training and then a job with a member of Congress.

To answer your question, I came to work for Sen. Feinstein through mutual agreement. That was true of all of the congressional fellows. We were all competing for good placements that would advance our goals for the year. Bill Connelly, in politics, was a great help, providing me with information about the Hill and contacts with former students who could offer advice. All that information-gathering led to a reception at the Capitol, with staffers from the congressional offices looking for fellows and fellows looking for offices. When the flurry of business cards ended, interviews began and, over the next two weeks, offers were made. I was very familiar with Sen. Feinstein’s record in health care, the Senate Intelligence Committee, the assault weapons ban and her willingness to work across the aisle. I also really enjoyed my interactions with her senior health staffer and thought I could learn a lot from her. They made an offer and I accepted the same day!

Q: Can you describe the kind of work you’re doing, including any issue areas or pending legislation you’ve been asked to focus on?

A: I work on many different projects and also meet and discuss legislation with constituents. The projects have included fact finding on health insurance, telehealth, breast cancer stamps, Zika, mental health, pharmaceutical costs, foster care, medical device security, human trafficking and many, many other topics. In two months, I had worked on over 30 different topics. I stopped adding to the list. No one would believe it.

Q: How does your field of study factor into the work you’re doing?

A: There are many illnesses that people come in to discuss that have a neurological foundation, and that’s an obvious place where my field of study is helpful. Surprisingly, I’ve found my training in statistics to be very valuable as well. It is really helpful to be able to read a summary of a scientific paper in the mainstream media, then get that paper and really see what the authors actually found. Having confidence in the results, or vice versa, can influence what you suggest for the policy being considered.

Q: What is the most interesting experience you’ve had so far as part of the fellowship?

A: That’s a tough question for me, since so many things have been interesting. As I mentioned before, much of my day is spent meeting with people who have health problems who need support from some federal program like Medicare or the Centers for Disease Control or the National Institutes of Health. Some of those people or their families have grave illnesses that have somehow become lost or ignored in the maze of health care regulations. Other people who come to the office are physicians, nurses, researchers and other care providers who need some kind of change to current laws in order to provide better care for their patients. Listening to all these constituents are the senator’s health staff – a small number of unbelievably dedicated and knowledgeable people who work long after I go home each evening. The conversations we have with constituents can be difficult. Sometimes there are tears, but sometimes laughter, too. There is always enormous respect on both sides of the table. The problems these constituents face are the most difficult things that people can face in their lives, yet they do so with such grace and hope even though, for many of them, the research being discussed will come too late. Those meetings change your perspective on a lot of things.

Q: How does the pace of your fellowship compare to the pace at W&L?

A: Like a lot of professors, I spend my days at W&L meeting with students, teaching class, writing and working in the lab. At night I catch up on emails and grade papers. In Washington, we don’t really take work outside the office — at least we fellows don’t! For that reason, the pace here seems really fast. There are always meetings and summaries to be prepared and a long list of bills and policies that need tending. Even though we do cross things off that list, the list tends to get longer and longer.

Q: What have you learned that you expect to bring back to campus and either incorporate into your position here or share in some other way?

A: The most direct translation of my experience here will be my Science and Public Policy class that I teach during spring. I have always struggled to find topics that have enough science in them to be good topics for policy discussions. That will no longer be a problem!

Q: I’m told that some employees in Capitol Hill offices are just out of college but may technically be your boss. Of course, you are a highly educated and experienced expert in your field. Has working with them been easy or has it taken some getting used to?

A: It has been really easy and rewarding. Fellows (from AAAS, Brookings and some other organizations) are considered senior staff in most offices, and your mentor is usually someone with lots of experience. That’s especially true in the offices of members who have had a number of years on the Hill. Those legislators often attract spectacular staff. Most of the folks who are right out of college are working toward being one of those senior staffers.

Q: The partisanship in Congress right now has been called unprecedented. Have you gotten a taste of any discord?

A: Surprisingly, not really. I’m not sure that my job would be any different if there were more bipartisan initiatives, and that’s probably because health matters tend to be supported on both sides of the aisle.

Q: Do you plan to keep in touch with other fellows (fellow fellows?) in your network after this experience is over? If so, how will those relationships be of value?

A: Yes. We are a pretty close group and have a standing Friday lunch date for 31! There are a few fellows who are senior scientists and who do a bit of mentoring of those just getting started. The value to me comes in hearing the perspectives of those new scientists on their careers and graduate training, since so many of our students take similar roads to Ph.D. training. The AAAS fellows tend to get exceptional post-fellowship job placements, and one never knows where their roads will lead them. Having a broad network in science is a very good thing.

– Lindsey Nair | lnair@wlu.edu