skip to main content

Fellowship gives undergraduate students science policy experience thanks to partnership

October 18, 2016

Students in Washington, DC
Each summer, a new group of Virginia Tech students is introduced to public policy on Capitol Hill as part of the Washington Semester program. Pictured is last summer's cohort. Photo by Andrea Morris, director of the program.

The Washington Semester program at Virginia Tech began offering undergraduate students the chance to spend summers learning the ins and outs of policymaking on Capitol Hill 20 years ago.

Today, the university’s School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), which houses the summer program, has partnered with the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech to ensure students are exposed to the role science plays in this process.

As part of the new collaboration, the Global Change Center has established an Undergraduate Science Policy Fellowship program for rising junior and senior science and engineering students who are specifically interested in the science-policy interface. Fellowship recipients attend the six-credit Washington Semester summer program, which includes hands-on work experience through a science policy internship. The application period for both programs is currently underway, and the deadline to apply is Dec. 10.

“The center’s undergraduate and graduate training programs are designed to broaden student’s perspectives of the importance of science to society and to train them to be more effective communicators of science to the general public and decision makers,” said Bill Hopkins, director of the Global Change Center and professor of fish and wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment.

“Our partnership with SPIA is enabling us to provide students with an immersive experience to see firsthand how science is used for decision making, and expose them to career opportunities where they can use their science training to better society,” said Hopkins, who is also a Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate.

Through the Washington Semester program, science policy fellows work for various organizations, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Agriculture, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Agency for International Development, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NASA.

This past summer, the first two fellows went to the National Capital Region as part of this partnership.

Lauren Buttling, of Potomac Falls, Virginia, a junior once majoring in biology but now in environmental policy and planning in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, pursued the summer program because of her interests in public health and policy. She spent the summer working in the Policy and Regulatory Services Branch of the Office of Pesticides at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“While there, I was able to bring in my undergraduate research experience because I knew certain laboratory protocols,” said Buttling. “When we reviewed audits that dealt with the spread of Zika, for example, I could talk about how scientific research works because I work in a lab at Virginia Tech that studies surrogate (nonharmful) strains of Ebola. My co-workers were reviewing protocols for insecticide and pesticide use, but they mostly had backgrounds in political science, so they didn’t necessarily know what the lab processes looked like. I was able to provide that perspective.”

Austin Berrier, of Arcadia, North Carolina, a senior majoring in engineering science and mechanics in the College of Engineering, pursued the program with an interest in law and spent the summer in the technology sector of the EPA. While there, he developed detailed guidelines for delegated agencies to report industry compliance with the Clean Air Act.

“I saw that scientific knowledge informs political decisions, especially in executive agencies, as long as the science doesn’t get politicized,” said Berrier. “What Congress does when they pass legislation like the Clear Water Act, is give the U.S. EPA the responsibility to decide on amounts, such as how much of a toxin can be in water before it poses a risk to public health. So, I learned how science can work in a lot of risk analyses.”

As students concerned with environmental policy, both Berrier and Buttling found the summer experience enlightening in terms of how they understand more complicated issues, such as climate change.

“Our goal is for our undergraduate students to develop a connection and a sense of empathy with the world around them, so they are getting a cross-disciplinary experience,” said Anne Khademian, SPIA director and professor in the university’s Center for Public Administration and Policy in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. “The beauty of this partnership is that some students have a science background, while other students have experience in policy analytics, so they bring this background to the table during the summer. These connections provide a more diverse skillset to understand the entire policy process and how decisions are made to advance the public’s interest.”

Based in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, the Washington Semester program is an 11-week immersion program in Washington, D.C., designed for juniors and seniors from all academic majors who are interested in learning about and working on challenging public policy issues. Students enroll in either a six-credit or 12-credit program, which includes an internship within a public, private, or nonprofit organization that is based on students’ interests and professional goals.

Visit the Global Change Center’s website for more information about the Science Policy Fellowship Program.

For more information about the Washington Semester program, visit Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs.

Written by Cassandra Hockman.

Contact: