Q & A Policy Fellowship Series: Dr. Laura Pence

Laura Pence Headshot
Dr. Laura Pence is a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Hartford with expertise in environmental chemistry, inorganic chemistry, and chemical education.  She also currently serves on the Board of Directors of the American Chemical Society (ACS) representing New England and New York.  In 2012-2013, Dr. Pence spent a year as an ACS/American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Congressional Science Policy Fellow in the office of Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), where her policy portfolio featured natural resources, energy, and environmental issues, with a particular emphasis in the areas of water and forestry. Since then she has continued to explore the nexus of science and public policy. Dr. Pence is an outstanding educator, winning the University of Hartford’s Roy E. Larsen award for Excellence in Teaching in 2006 and ranking among the top 25 professors nationally in RateMyProfessor.com’s 2014 survey.  Prof. Pence received her B.S. in chemistry from Lebanon Valley College and her Ph.D. from Michigan State University. Subsequently, she was a National Institutes of Health Fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  She was named a Fellow of the American Chemical Society in 2011 for her programming and leadership on environmental and sustainability issues.


When did you decide to become a fellow?

Unlike most Fellows who have typically recently completely Ph.D.’s or postdocs, I was a mid-career faculty member who wanted to take a sabbatical and have an adventure.  I started planning about a year before the application was due or about two years before the fellowship began.  My fellowship year was 2012-2013.

How did you prepare for applying for the fellowship?

About a year in advance, I started researching the program and the application.  I spoke to past Fellows about their experiences, and I asked for their advice.  At that point, I had already regularly taught our non-science majors chemistry class and done a professional writing project, so I had established that I could communicate effectively with the general public.  I applied to both the American Chemical Society Congressional Fellowship program and to the AAAS Executive Branch fellowship program.  My professional strategy has always been to spread my net as broadly as possible, and indeed, I was almost into the placement process in the AAAS fellowships when I accepted the ACS fellowship.

What’s a typical day/week like for you?

There really wasn’t a typical day or week because it depended on what was happening that day or week.  Some of my typical responsibilities included meeting with constituents, writing briefing memos and vote recommendations, and researching projects and legislation. I also monitored hearings, briefings, and actions on the floor on a daily basis.

What’s been the most gratifying part of being a fellow?

Overall, I enjoyed being part of the process of trying to make a better country for our citizens.  I loved the challenge of assimilating large quantities of knowledge rapidly on topics such as fracking, forestry, and water resources, and it was extremely gratifying to be part of a group of fellows and staff who worked hard and cared so much.  Being able to use my scientific training and talents to contribute to my office was also extremely rewarding.  Lastly and personally, I also prized my Congressional ID and having the ability to go nearly anywhere in the Capitol without any escort.  Sitting in the Senate gallery and watching the historic vote on the 2013 bipartisan immigration bill was particularly moving.

What’s been the biggest challenge as a fellow?

The learning curve was enormous, but it was exhilarating to drink from the fire hose.  Another challenge I had as a mid-career Fellow was that nearly all the staff of a Congressional office was significantly younger than I was.  I worked very hard to respect the superior experience of the people who were younger than I was and to be a good mentee.  Managing those dynamics were challenging for all of us, but we were extremely successful in my office.

What advice would you give to people who want to become fellows?

If you plan to go to Washington, don’t imagine that you are going to change the system or fix the system.  Fellows know a lot about science, but they need to accept that they know very little about the details of governing.  Respect the system and the people, and plan to contribute your expertise to help produce better decisions.  Check your ego at the door.  It’s not all about you.

Prepare to be flexible. You don’t bring whatever you explored for your dissertation; beta clamp proteins, click chemistry, and thermodynamics simply don’t come up. What you bring as a scientist is your analytical training, your communication and collaboration talents, your problem-solving skills, and your ability to bring a project to completion.  I worked on forestry, forest fires, water policy, and cybersecurity because those were the needs of my office and those were where the opportunities were.

What’s the most surprising thing you discovered since becoming a fellow?

The first time after my fellowship that I was in a meeting of people trying to implement a change and my reflex was to identify the key stakeholders I would need to get on board to sell the idea, I knew that my outlook on process had been changed permanently.  I’ve been surprised at how much my fellowship experience reshaped my perspective on how to get things done.  It also has resulted in more opportunities than I could ever have imagined.  I have a willingness to dive into projects that I wouldn’t have attacked before.  One example is sharing the stage with an economist, a theologian, and a bishop on a panel discussion of “Climate Change and the Papal Encyclical.”  I had a ball in spite of my initial sense of being out of my depth.

How does your scientific background help or hinder your duties?

While I was a Fellow, I found that I instinctively always attacked a question by collecting data or identifying the scientific foundation.  Through the other people in my office, I learned to layer on considerations of business and politics, which are equally important.  My scientific background always felt like an asset, but I felt it was essential to understand that it was not the only factor in deciding on a position, and often it was not the most important.

What’s it like living in DC?

Unlike most Fellows, I knew that I was in DC for only a year, and then I would return to my faculty job.  As a result, I was determined not to waste a single opportunity while I was there.  If my fellow Fellows had a slogan, it was, “I’m in!”  You didn’t have to get beyond, “Would anyone like to…” and there would be a chorus of, “I’m in!”

Would you like to go to the Botanical Garden to see the corpse flower bloom?  I’m in!

Would you like to go behind the scenes at the Smithsonian?  I’m in!

Would you like to go on a tour of the Library of Congress?  I’m in!

I also found that Fellows tend to organize creative outings, and if you organize something, you get invited to other things.  Overall, it was a chance of a lifetime to explore the nation’s capital in detail and over a whole year.

Top Six amazing experiences:

  1. Standing on the 2013 inauguration platform
  2. Watching the National Memorial Day concert rehearsal from the balcony of the Capitol Rotunda
  3. Seeing FDR’s hand-annotated “Day that will live in infamy” speech in a special visit to the National Archives
  4. Gem Vault in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum
  5. Dome Tour of the Capitol
  6. Reading reports in the main Reading Room of the Library of Congress

How has your experience as a fellow shaped your future goals?

As a faculty member returning from sabbatical, it took me about a year to start to find opportunities to leverage my fellowship experience.  Some of those opportunities have included:  teaching an honors seminar on science and public policy, working with the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering on a study committee of winter highway maintenance, returning to chair the American Chemical Society (ACS) Committee on Environmental Improvement, and being elected to the ACS Board of Directors.  I’m also on the team that is developing a state-level legislative science policy fellowship program in Connecticut.  My ongoing interests all have a strong policy flavor as a result of my fellowship year.

If you want to learn more about my own fellowship experience, I invite you to check out the blog that I wrote while I was on the Hill.  Look for the 2012-2013 posts at DrPence.wordpress.com


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