Pitt alum speaks about science policy

Martha Merrill, a recent graduate working in science policy at the national level, speaks to students and community members Tuesday about projects she has worked on that had serious impacts on U.S. policy. (Photo by Christian Snyder | Contributing Editor)

Women in STEM often leave their jobs mid-career to spend more time with their families, but then later struggle to integrate back into the workplace.

To help women in this situation regain their careers, Martha Merrill worked to implement a STEM reentry workshop. This job is just one of the positions Merrill, a Pitt alum, has held in the field of science policy.

“I luckily found science policy to be a way in which I could be myself [by pursuing science] and also help others,” Merrill said.

About 20 people attended an event held in the sciVelo building on Fifth Avenue Tuesday night to hear Merrill speak on science policy. Merrill is currently a technical analyst at Rand Corp. — a U.S-based non-profit think tank — and spoke on a range of topics, including what science policy is, what kind of work she does and how skills from academic research transfer to policy.

The Pitt Science Policy Group hosted the event and chose Merrill to speak because she recently graduated and transitioned into a career in science policy, said Ryan Staudt, a Ph.D. candidate in molecular pharmacology and secretary for the Pitt Science Policy Group.

“We figured it would be more valuable to get her insight, rather than someone who’s been more established in the field for a while, who might be out of touch with what’s actually happening right now,” Staudt said.

Merrill said science policy can involve using scientific evidence to advocate for or against laws — such as those related to climate change — or it can involve policy that guides science, such as evaluating research institutions and laboratories.

“What I do [currently] as a scientist in policy is provide technical expertise so that decision-makers can make better decisions,” Merrill said.

Merrill has involved herself in a diverse range of science policy projects. Aside from the STEM reentry workshop, she has also worked on the Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories, whose work continues to be used as benchmarks in congressional hearings.

Staudt said it was valuable to hear the specific projects Merrill worked on, since science policy is such a broad field.

“A lot of the times, it’s hard to get into the nitty-gritty of what [science policy] actually is and get a concrete idea of what the work entails,” Staudt said.

Science policy differs from academic research, Merrill said, because there is a greater importance placed on networking and self-promotion. She said science policy also has a more interdisciplinary focus and science policy employees often work on a larger quantity of projects than academic researchers.

“Policy research [also] has a lot of similarities to other research, like having creativity of spirit and wanting to learn a lot about a specific subject,” Merrill said.

Jennifer Boatz, a structural biology Ph.D. candidate, said it was interesting to learn from Merrill how exactly policy compliments research.

“Policy is not driven just because someone thinks, ‘Oh, this is a good idea’ to implement a certain policy,” Boatz said. “It’s driven based on evidence-based research, and that is really attractive to me.”

Boatz said she should be graduating in about a year or less and wants to then pursue either science policy or science writing.

“It’s a little nerve-racking to think about throwing myself into the job market, but it’s also super exciting to see that there are more opportunities out there,” Boatz said.

Merrill said she wants to inform individuals — and students such as Boatz — about science policy because it is an effective way to use science to help others.

“Especially when you’re really young and you don’t really know where you fit in the world, having a place where your research or what you’re doing directly impacts something you care about is important,” Merrill said.


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