Q & A Policy Fellowship Series: Dr. Lida Beninson


Dr. Lida Beninson earned her Ph.D. in Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder. While there she also earned a Graduate Certificate from the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. In Washington she was a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the National Science Foundation in the Division of Computer and Information Science and Engineering. She currently works at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine as a Program Officer on the Board of Higher Education and Workforce.

When did you decide to become a fellow? During a summer internship at the National Science Foundation, my mentor observed that I really enjoyed the nature of science policy work and networking with the people involved. When I told her how much I preferred my internship activities to my bench research activities, she told be about the AAAS fellowship. After reading up on it and seeing how many researchers transformed their careers as a result of the fellowship experience, I was sold.

How did you prepare for applying for the fellowship? One of the first things I did was find the fellowship scoring matrix and post it in my office cubicle. The main criteria for the fellowship is strong research, leadership, and communication skills. Another essential qualification for the fellowship is a demonstrated interest in science policy. As I continued my doctoral research, I carved out time to pursue policy coursework, communicate the importance of research funding to my local US representative, engage in my local FOSEP chapter, join an editorial board for a science policy journal, author a science policy blog, and apply for science policy awards in related research fields (for example, the American Institutes of Biological Sciences). The fellowship program is fiercely competitive, but I felt really prepared for my fellowship interviews and projects having engaged in so many policy activities prior to arriving in DC.

What’s a typical day/week like for you? Not a single day or moment is typical! I am involved in many different projects at different agencies with different levels of responsibility. What is essential to my work and to staying involved in many projects is networking. I usually go through some form of networking every day, and the larger and deeper you spread your network, the more likely you are to be invited to join cool projects. Many federal agencies are spread thin, but fellows can be very helpful in moving projects forward when leadership is busy.

What’s been the most gratifying part of being a fellow? There is a rapid velocity of learning, and I love it. It’s normal for a fellow to become a fast “surface” expert in a completely unrelated field. For example, my doctoral degree is in Integrative Physiology, but I work on computer science and big data initiatives here at the National Science Foundation. I still can’t program a line of code or work with petabytes of data, but I am familiar with big picture visions for these fields and their underlying research infrastructure.

What’s been the biggest challenge as a fellow? Finding the right mentor for your fellowship. Mentorship is key- if you don’t have a great person guiding you through the policy world, it’s easy to feel lost and underutilized. Take time to understand your prospective mentor’s leadership style and team dynamics. How will they help foster your professional advancement? What roles will you have on projects? How many people do you need to report to? How much time is available for professional development opportunities? Don’t be afraid to ask for specifics.

What advice would you give to people who want to become fellows?  Find the right mentor!

What’s the most surprising thing you discovered since become a fellow? Networking is key! You won’t get as much out of your fellowship if you don’t network. And don’t worry if you think you’re bad at it. Just keep at it, or take a professional development seminar to improve.

How does your scientific background help or hinder your duties? The part of my scientific training that’s most relevant is understanding what research life is like for students, post-docs, and faculty. When policies on science policy are on the table, bringing that perspective can be really valuable for the research community. Additionally, fellows bring focus to the need for evidence and data before making decisions. That is a very valuable perspective in the policy world.

What’s it like living in DC? It’s exciting and enriching! After you get over the shock from the enormous cost of living, you realize that there are many opportunities for enrichment and networking. There are always lectures, workshops, and seminars open to the public, and many other fun things are free, like the museums and festivals. There are even beautiful hiking trails nearby and several beaches to choose from.

How has your experience as a fellow shaped your future goals? I am currently a program officer at the National Academies of Sciences and my fellowship was crucial for this position. The knowledge that I gained about the policy process was important, but even more important were the connections I made through networking during the fellowship. By working on a variety of projects during the fellowship, I met people in different sectors of science policy and could engage in discussions that helped me shape my future goals and opened doors to new opportunities.

Upcoming Q & A Series: Spotlight on Policy Fellowships

img_4210With the recent election and the uncertainty about what science policy will look like under President Trump, now is the time for people passionate about science ethics and policy to look for ways to get involved. (Check out http://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/11/who-will-advise-trump-on-science/508055/)

Pursuing policy fellowships is one way to make sure facts and pressing issues regarding science get heard. As a way to encourage those intrigued by the idea, FOSEP at UT thought it is an appropriate time to dig deeper into just what a science-based policy fellowship looks like.

The best way? We decided to ask the fellows themselves!

Keep checking back to hear from people that have gotten involved. The first interview will be up by the end of the week!

“During a post-election session AAAS hosted on Nov. 15 a panel of experts urged scientists to be voices for medical research, innovation and evidence-based policy to assist the administration as it prepares to take control in January.” Anne Q. Hoy https://www.aaas.org/news/aaas-explores-science-policy-incoming-trump-administration

Recap: Change the Game lecture with Gregory Mack

A BIG thank you to everyone that came out to our inaugural Change the Game lecture; you helped to make the event a success! For those of us interested in metrics, we have had 152 attendees spanning around 12 departments at UT: *Check out the cool attendance infographic made by our secretary, Nannan Jiang.


We were happy to draw people from such diverse backgrounds and hope you all found it as interesting as regular FOSEP goers did!

An equally BIG thank you to Dr. Gregory Mack for being our speaker and providing such great insight on the intersection between science and policy, particularly concerning advocacy efforts. It was such a pleasure to host you and to get to know you!

We hope this establishes a lecture series everyone interested in science ethics, policy, and their comingling can find valuable and fun! Keep an eye open for a continuation of this series next year and send FOSEP at UT an email if you have any particular speaker or topic you would love to see featured.


FOSEP in the news!

Click here to view the article published in UT’s Daily Beacon

New student organization unites science and politics

Shelby Whitehead, Contributor                                                                      Sep 19, 2016

The Forum on Science, Ethics and Policy recently established its place on campus. The main focus of FOSEP is to encourage a conversation about science and how it effects and is affected by politics.

FOSEP came to UT in September of 2015. It is based on similar programs at universities in Boulder, Colorado and Seattle, Washington.“Science and technology are playing an increasingly important role in society, and with that has come a lot of challenges at the intersection of science and policy,” Marie Kirkegaard, FOSEP’S vice president, said.

The program tries to bridge the communication gap between policy and science by holding events, which are generally held once a month and include bringing in speakers from professional fields. FOSEP recently hosted former state representative Gloria Johnson to speak on how policy works in the state. A possible upcoming event is a debate about policy between two opposing ethical sides. Ethics play a vital role in the creation and support of scientific experiments and the policies associated with it.

The group establishes science as the foundation of all conversation. They aim to have a bipartisan and factual discussion about  issues in the scientific community and how these issues relate to society as a whole. Conversations range from topics on genetically engineered foods to climate change.

While FOSEP is still in the early stages, members are searching for a main focal point and identity. “We’re working on what we want to focus on, what our identity is compared to the other programs around the country,” Victoria DiStefano, FOSEP president, said. As a new club, the main goal of FOSEP is recruitment of new members. Membership is currently mostly graduate students, but FOSEP hopes to gain undergraduate members to increase the sustainability of the club. “We’ve intended FOSEP to be a forum both for scientists but also for nonscientists,” Kirkegaard said. The program also seeks more diverse membership to provide opposing opinions throughout the group and to create a more effective conversation.

 The club is operating on campus and various local platforms now, but wants to expand to the national level. “Being able to communicate to the people who actually make the policies is very important,” DiStefano said. “I think nationally, it’s become recognized as a very important issue. How do we communicate our science to lawmakers? How do we interact with them to say what’s important?”

Another function of FOSEP is to integrate nontraditional career paths. FOSEP is looking to send individuals from the science field into political careers in D.C. where they will learn how to develop legislation that involves scientific principles.

Will Hartwig, founder and postdoctoral advisor of FOSEP at UT, suggests the club’s strong leadership will play a vital role in FOSEP and how engaged officers will contribute to success in the future. “Scientists just can’t remain on the sidelines,” Hartwig said.57e15d2a087c8-image

FOSEP at UTK Voterpalooza!

FOSEP joined fellow politically-oriented groups for the recent Voterpalooza event, hosted by the UT Political Science students in the Howard Baker Center. Thank you to everyone that stopped by and made the event so much fun!