Monthly Archives: September 2012

Congressional Speed Dating a.k.a. Placement

Last Tuesday, the Congressional Fellows had our last day of orientation together, which was entirely focused around the placement process.  We picked up some good tips, but I think we were all seized by a general sense of, “We’ve been waiting for two weeks.  Let’s get started!”

The kick-off for Placement was a reception on Tuesday evening in the Capitol for the Fellows, Congressional staff, and some AAAS staff who came to help with the match-making.  A number of us learned the hard way that all food and drink is forbidden through security, but we’ll know for next time.  Our event started officially at 5 PM, but the Fellows arrived early for some very good reasons.  First, I know that personally, I have yet to master the skills required to eat, drink, and chat all at the same time.  I can manage two of three but not all three.  Thus I needed to have a few snacks before everything started because eating was going to be the expendable activity.

Navigating a reception or cocktail party has turned out to be an important life skill that I recommend all people should learn.  My training came when I was about 16 and became involved with the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, NY.  I started as an usher, moved up to doing make-up and wigs, and eventually sang in the chorus for several summers.  That meant cast parties with people who were largely my parents’ age.  My parents were also involved with the Opera, but much as I love my parents, I didn’t think it was cool to cling to them at parties.  I figured that I could probably find ten minutes of conversation with just about anyone (hint: asking questions always helps), and thus I learned to mingle.

So the Placement reception turned out to be mingling with a mission.  I had a rough mental list of the offices that interested me, so I set out to optimize my mingling time by trying to target people from those offices.  (Yes, this is the way a scientist mingles.)  I had also taken advantage of opportunities to chat with former fellows over the past two weeks, and that paid off by some of those people pointing me toward staff who were looking for people with my expertise.  Then in the oddest twist, now and then one of the AAAS staffers would grab my elbow and say, “Come here.  So-and-so wants to meet you.”  Wow, I might not be a rock star, but I certainly felt at the very least like a rather sparkly pebble.

Interspersed with the mingling, three separate members of Congress came by to visit briefly and make a few remarks.  Each one mentioned how much he valued the Fellows program and not incidentally, each made a plug for working with his office.  Go team!

As long as I’m dispensing advice on mingling with a mission, I’ll say that wearing a blazer with pockets was essential.  I had my own business cards in one pocket to hand out to people, and I put the cards I received in the other pocket.  I didn’t take time to jot down notes on the backs of the cards, but I remembered nearly everyone afterwards.

That evening and the next morning, I sent emails and resumes to the people who I was interested in interviewing, and then I waited.  AAAS has rented space for the Fellows a short walk from the Senate office buildings, so about half of us ended up there for a chunk of the day.

This is where things got really interesting.  There are probably at least a dozen fellows who have interests that overlap with mine.  We know that we’ll all be essentially competing for the same offices, although we also know that we will all get placed, and that our fellow Fellows will be an important network when we get going.  So there is a choice that each one of us had to make about whether to keep all information private or to share information and encouragement with each other.  It’s been a pleasure to realize that most of my fellow Fellows have made the same decision, and we have been extremely collegial.  We’ve helped identify the random business cards that we acquired and can’t quite place.  We’ve shared contact information for the best way to reach an office.  When someone came back from an interview in an office that interests me and announced a great interview, I have wholeheartedly replied, “That’s awesome!”  Making the challenging choice and choosing to value our relationships is knitting us even closer together.

I think one of the most surreal experiences I have had thus far was sitting in the atrium of the Hart Senate office building.  I visited my Senator there a couple of years ago and felt intimidated and out of place until I realized that one of the virtues of being an American is that I actually have the right and responsibility to tell my representatives how I stand on an issue.  On Thursday morning, while I sitting in that same space jotting down notes from my most recent interview, three of my fellow Fellows spotted me and came over to chat.  As the four of us de-briefed each other, I realized that not only did I belong in this space, but I had friends there as well!  Oh how far I’ve come.

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The Pentagon and the Sept 11th Memorial

We had Monday off, so eight days ago, I booked a tour of the Pentagon.  That might appear to be advanced planning, but since eight days is the minimum lead time for booking that tour, I consider it to be an impulse eight days early.

Getting there was fraught with challenges.  I was getting ready to change Metro trains half way to my destination when I suddenly realized that the letter that I absolutely had to have to get onto the tour was sitting at home on my table.  I thought I might have barely enough time to retrace my steps, so I hopped back on a train going in the other direction.  That train was promptly taken out of service, and I didn’t feel I had enough time to complete the trip at that point.  So since the only path open was forward, I transferred trains and headed toward the Pentagon.  I started plotting that I could find a library or Kinkos and print out the letter when I realized that I could access the original email on my phone.  I still wasn’t totally happy, but I figured that perhaps a few strategically shed tears would make the difference.  Inevitably, no one even asked to see the letter, so I was glad that I didn’t go back.

I had enough time before my tour to go see the Pentagon 9/11 memorial.  In Connecticut, and possibly in most of the rest of the country, September 11th invokes images of the World Trade Center in New York, but here in DC, the emotions of that day center around the Pentagon where 184 people died.

The depth of information at the Pentagon memorial fascinated me.  Each person is represented by a bench cantilevered over a small pool of water.  If you are reading the name and looking at the building, then the person died inside.  If you read the name and are looking away from the building, then that person was on the plane.  At the base of the bench, if there are other names listed, then those are of family members who also died on that day.  Curving around the outside of the memorial is the age wall.  It starts at 3” tall for the youngest victim, and rises to 71” tall at the far end for the oldest.  So with almost no words, I am given the story that three-year-old Dana Falkenberg was traveling with her sister and her parents on the plane.  Each person was cherished and cared for, and it was all beautifully done.

Inside the Pentagon, home of the Department of Defense, I became immediately aware that my experience with the military is woefully inadequate to allow me to decipher all of the various uniforms that were everywhere.  There are more officers than enlisted personnel in the Pentagon, and I’ve heard it said that in this location, the Colonels get the coffee.

My tour was led by a young man in the Air Force, who traversed virtually the entire route walking backwards, and we had his equivalent from the Army making sure that none of us wandered off.  The guide explained that the Department of Defense had been created in 1947 out of the former Department of War (the land-based troops) and the Department of Navy (the sea-based troops) to reduce competition and foster cooperation among the divisions.  There is obviously a fair amount of good-natured banter that remains, however.  Our Air Force representative explained that September 18th is the anniversary of the formation of the Air Force, and thus in 1947, he said, “We were the new kids in town.”  The army voice growled from the rear, “You are still the new kids in town!”

The Pentagon is the largest but most efficient office building in the world; in spite of the size, it only takes about ten minutes to get from any one location to any other.  It feels like a small city, which contains a CVS, a best buy, clothing stores, and multiple food courts which wafted their aromas at us throughout our trip.  The tour mostly focused on the displays in the halls, so we went by the POW/MIA display, the MacArthur displays, and in one hallway, there are paintings of each signer of the Constitution who also served in the armed forces.

I was highly entertained by the stories about the paintings by John Trumbell that documented the formation of the country.  For example, Adams and Jefferson had a well-known rivalry, from which Adams usually came out on top.  Knowing that Trumbell would be painting the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson invited the artist to his home, and treated him extremely well.  As a result, Jefferson is not only painted in bright colors and Adams is depicted as more balding than he was at the time, but upon close examination, it can be seen that Jefferson is standing on Adams’ feet.

Trumbell was not allowed to sign his paintings, so he tended to paint himself into the scenes, either fourth from the end or fourth from the American flag.  Congress started to catch on and was threatening to punish him, so in one painting, Trumbell’s face is on a woman instead of a man.  Our guide characterized our searching for Trumbell as “Where’s Waldo- Colonial style.”

A special treat was that because my group had a cadre of young sea cadets, we actually went in to the Hall of Heros, which has large replicas of the Medals of Honor for the Army, Air Force, and water arms of the military, and which has the names of all the people who have won these awards listed on the walls.  There is a gold star next to one name- a man whose work in Vietnam was highly classified and thus only recently has been honored as he deserved.

The presence of the sea cadets also produced extra details that we would not otherwise have gotten.  We stepped outside at one point, and when the cadets started to put on their hats, the guide said, “no cover.”  Inexperienced with the military as I am, I eventually understood that when a soldier or sailor steps outside, he or she is expected to put on a hat.  When we stepped into the central courtyard, our guide explained that those five and a half acres are the largest “no hat, no salute” zone in the United States.  To some extent, it’s a necessity because otherwise there are so many officers around that enlisted personnel would have to Velcro their hands to their foreheads the entire time.

So if you visit DC and can tear yourself away from the Smithsonians and the zoo, where you can’t yet see the baby panda anyway, I do recommend a tour of the Pentagon.

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So Where Will I Be Working?

Ever since I announced that I was accepting a Congressional Fellowship, people have been asking what I will be doing and where I will be working.  When I have answered “I don’t know,” that has added to the confusion.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS, who is coordinating all the Congressional Fellows, specifically requested that we not contact any Congressional Offices until after orientation so that we would all start on equal footing, and so that through orientation, we could be as well-prepared as possible to make a good choice.  Certainly I have changed my mind a dozen times about what would be the ideal situation for me as I’ve learned more specifics about this year in particular, so I think that’s very practical advice.

After that, although the process we undergo is called placement, AAAS does not assign us to offices.  They support us in our search, but the initiative is ours.  It’s been emphasized that finding the right fit- an office which has the right atmosphere and that has someone who is willing to mentor us- is absolutely essential.

There are basically four options.  In a House personal office, i.e. the office of someone like Rep.  John Larson or Rep. Rosa DeLauro from Connecticut, the staffs are all the same size since each person represents approximately the same number of voters.  With only 18 staff shared between the District and Washington offices, a Fellow in a House office usually ends up with an extremely broad array of content areas to work on.  The two year election cycle also keeps the House moving at a frenetic pace, so the House is especially intense.

In a Senate personal office, such as Connecticut Sen. Blumenthal, the staff size will be proportional to the population of the state, so big states such as California have extremely large staffs.  The larger the staff, the more narrow a Fellow’s portfolio of topics, but the pace is also a touch less frantic compared to the House.  Just a touch, mind you!

The House and the Senate both also have committees, although they usually aren’t exactly parallel.  There is a House committee on Energy and Commerce, whereas the Senate committee is Energy and Natural Resources.  I expect that with the budget issues coming up, we’ll all also be hearing more about the House Committee on Ways and Means and the Senate Committees on Finance or on Appropriations.  All of these committees have staff who focus closely on writing policy and who see a bit less of the process of dealing with legislation.

Since Fellows are free to Congress, we are highly desirable to offices who know how to use us effectively.  There are 34 of us this year and 535 Congressional Offices plus all the committees, so although it will take time to find the right fit, we will most certainly all get placed somewhere.

On Friday, about an hour before the end of Orientation, we were sent the list of offices who have expressed an interest in having fellows so far.  Our AAAS staffer looked out over the room and was amused that all of the Congressional Fellows were no longer paying much attention to the speaker and instead were hunched over smart phones and iPads scanning the list and looking for interesting matches.  I was certainly one of the guilty parties!  Tuesday night is the start of Congressional Match Game, and my best guess is that I’ll find my placement anywhere between a week and three to four weeks after that.

Wish me luck!

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Washington National Cathedral

Since I only have one year in Washington, I am determined to explore and experience the city to its fullest.  On Saturday, I started off with a genuine DC experience- the center of the red line on the Metro, spanning from DuPont Circle to Union Station, was closed for weekend track work.  There were an ample supply of shuttle buses, but when I returned from the Fellows picnic in the afternoon, traffic was so snarled that progress was extremely slow.  Thus I was determined that my Sunday explorations needed to be executed without using the subway.

According to Google maps, the National Cathedral is a mere 1.4 miles, or a 30 minute walk from my house.  What Google maps did NOT tell me is that the entire walk is uphill.  The National Cathedral is the highest structure in DC.  It is actually shorter in height than the Washington Monument, but because the Cathedral sits on great blooming Mount Saint Albans, it provides the best eagle’s eye view of the city.

Space Window

One of the details that I sought out specifically was the space window, which illustrates the path of Apollo 11 around the moon and back.  In the center of the moon’s glass is the only piece of lunar rock that is not in a museum.  Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins (who incidentally had attended the Cathedral’s Saint Albans School as a lad) presented the rock for placement in the window.  I learned later to look overhead near the space window and focus on the “buss,” which is the decoration placed at the junction of several arches.  At first glance, it looks like a golf ball, but upon closer examination, it is obviously the surface of the moon with moon boot footsteps across it.  Neil Armstrong’s public memorial service will be held on Thursday in the Cathedral, although it is a ticketed event controlled by NASA.

Buss of moon and footprints

The docent on the tour explained that cathedrals generally have numerous chapels because most people don’t have 7000 friends to invite to an event.  Of all the chapels, the War Memorial Chapel was probably the most significant for the stories involved.  The entire contents were a gift from England, and the stained glass window depicts scenes from WWII in particular.  It was from this chapel that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated.  They read every one of the 58,000 names on the wall, which took three days and two nights.  In the back corner of the chapel stands cement fragment from the Pentagon that is in the shape of a cross.  The docent suggested that the survivors of 9/11 hope that the annual anniversary will become a day of reflection and remembrance rather than turning into a holiday on which you go out to buy a new mattress, as has happened with Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day.

As might be expected in a cathedral, the crypt contains the remains of a number of memorable people.  Annie Sullivan is buried there as one of the few women who is not known mostly as “wife of someone.”  Helen Keller is also buried there, since she said that she couldn’t bear to be separated from her teacher.  Nearby, there is a plaque in memory of Helen Keller with the brass worn bright from all the hands touching the Braille dots.  Eventually the dots get worn smooth from the contact, and the plaque is replaced to start again.

The Cathedral was badly damaged by the earthquake last year, and because it is a church, the Federal Government is not allowed to provide any money for its restoration.  About halfway up the Nave, which is the large main section of the building where people worship, there is a new ceiling of black netting.  It still allows the light of the upper windows to shine through, but it protects people below from debris.

My second quest, other than seeing the space window, was to find the gargoyle in the shape of Darth Vader.  Apparently there was a competition a number of years ago for different designs, and Darth Vader came in third.  He’s very high up, and although I thought I followed the instructions exactly, when I got my telephoto pictures home and blew them up, I couldn’t recognize the characteristic rounded helmet.  Oh well, it will give me a reason to return.

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How I ended up as a Congressional Fellow

A few days after I read the story in Madeleine Albright’s book, I had lunch with a friend and I mentioned that I had started to toy with the idea of doing a fellowship.  I wasn’t at all sure about the logistics, but my wise friend announced, “Apply first!  Then figure out if you want to do it!”  I told her she gave excellent advice.  She asked, “Don’t you tell you students to do that?”  I replied, “Yes, but I didn’t think of it myself.”

Once the idea fermented in my mind for a while, I decided indeed to move forward with applications for fellowships.   The next question was to decide on what variety of fellowship to explore, and networking was key to the next step.  My network connections helped me learn about two different types of opportunities that I thought would be right for me.  I applied for both types.  When my Beloved Husband asked which one I was hoping to get, I explained that it depended which one I was working on at any given moment.  I had a love affair with each one.

The first time was Executive Branch Fellowships that would have placed me in a Federal Agency such as the Department of Energy, the EPA or the Department of State.  These are one year fellowships that are often renewed for a second year.  The three largest programs are in the areas of Energy/Environment/Agriculture, Diplomacy/Security/Development, and Health/Human Services.  I applied to the first two areas, got interviews in both, and made it to the final stages in the DSD group.  At this point, I had visions of my flying to exotic countries and bringing the blessings of science or clean water to cultures.  Ah the stamps I could get in my passport!

Meanwhile, there are also Congressional Fellowships.  These are fellowships that are sponsored by various scientific organizations with the intent of providing one or two scientists to be Congressional staffers for a year.  Because we are free to Congress, we are quite sought-after, and this is exclusively a one year stint.  I applied to the program at the American Chemical Society and before I could do the placement for the DSD Executive branch fellowships, I was offerred one of the two ACS fellowships.

What followed was a considerable amount of soul-searching and discussion with my Beloved Husband about what might be the best option.  I had been shying away from the Congressional Fellowships because they are known to be longer and more erratic hours and be higher pressure than the Executive Branch Fellowships.  Eventually though, I decided to set aside my fantasy of jet-setting international science diplomacy in favor of focusing on our own American government and how it functions.  There may be some other opportunity for an Executive Branch fellowship at another time, but it seemed best to do the Congressional Fellowship while I’m still young enough and crazy enough to make it work.

For others who might be interested in something similar, the Congressional Fellowships are not just the physical sciences.  My cohort includes engineers, veterinarians, psychologists, sociologists, and a nutritionist.  The Executive branch fellows who are going through most of the same orientation with me not only extend to the social sciences, but also include several people representing the arts and humanities, so there are opportunities for people from all sorts of fields.  This website has a pretty comprehensive list of all kinds of DC fellowships as well: http://hobnobblog.com/congress-by-the-numbers/congressional-fellowships-and-internships/

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A Year’s Adventures in Washington

For my second sabbatical from the University of Hartford, I wanted a different kind of experience.  I have been learning about the importance of using well-informed science to shape policy decisions, and was interested in doing my part and getting involved.  Being a mid-career scientist and professor, however, made the logistics of moving to DC for a year a bit daunting.

Then I was reading Madeleine Albright’s autobiography, and encountered this story that she told from back when her home country of Czechoslovakia was still Communist.  A Czech dissident encountered and old friend and said, “My friend, we could really use your help with the cause.  Will you join us?”  The old friend responded, “I wish I could but I can’t.  You see, I have children.”  The dissident replied, “I wish that I could be silent as you, but I can’t.  You see, I have children.”

With that story, my thoughts turned away from “How can I?” to “How can I not?”

So I will spend the next year as a Congressional Science and Technology Policy Fellow contributing what I can to make a difference.

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