Howard Garrison Advocacy Fellow

Kaitlyn Browning

Kaitlyn Browning is a graduate student at Vanderbilt University.

Describe your interest in participating in the program.

Browning: As the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated, effective policies grounded in factual science are integral to ensuring public health. However, the pandemic also revealed severe cracks in the system that allowed public trust in science to break down. Often, this kind of disintegration can be due to inadequate communication on the part of the scientists. In fact, the CDC, having recognized its missteps during the COVID-19 pandemic, announced changes to the agency's communications office, among other restructuring efforts, as a response to its tarnished authority. Factual science must be a fundamental part of meaningful policy, but often, many scientists fail to communicate their science in a way that the public, or even policymakers, understand. I am very interested in how my expertise in science and passion for effective communication can be leveraged to address these cracks in the system. I am passionate about advocating for science and making it accessible to all audiences, especially in terms of policymaking and policy execution. However, I am unsure how to transform these passions into practical skills that will effect change. The Howard Garrison Advocacy Fellowship is distinctly aligned with my passions, areas for growth, and desire to learn. Having only been trained in an academic setting, I have a somewhat poorly informed, naive understanding of what science policy, advocacy, and communication mean in a practical sense. So far, I have not had the opportunity for such a deep and enriching orientation to policy and legislative development or been given the tools to determine how to leverage my passion and skills in a practical setting. The Fellowship would directly address both shortcomings. I am particularly excited about the case studies and assignments offered in the program's Science Policy and Advocacy Course, as I have never had the opportunity to gain this type of deep knowledge and didactic training.

Furthermore, I greatly look forward to the opportunity to attain practical experience in science policy and practice my developing leadership and professional skills by working alongside elected officials while being given the support of the Fellowship to do so. These practical experiences will contribute to my successful training, and the opportunity to associate with and learn from current science policy and advocacy experts will help me identify specific careers to which I can aspire and improve my goal setting to reach that career. These interactions would also be useful for broadening my network outside of the academic setting, which is key to a successful transition from academia to policy and advocacy. My passion for effective and practical science policy and advocacy is currently unrealized. I am interested in how the Howard Garrison Advocacy Fellowship's practical training and unique experiences would support my endeavors to transition from academia to science policy and advocacy, taking science from bench to bill.

How do you plan to use the knowledge and experience gained through your participation in the Howard Garrison Advocacy Program? 

Browning: This opportunity comes at a pivotal time in my graduate school career. I am nearing the end of my tenure and must now seriously consider future aspirations. The experience I would gain by participating in the Howard Garrison Advocacy Fellowship will allow me to identify potential careers at the interface of science and advocacy and help me consider how these careers align with my passions. Getting intimate exposure to these types of careers will reveal what opportunities exist and how I might best prepare for them with the short time I have left in graduate school. In addition, and arguably more importantly, the working knowledge gained through participation will orient me to the current science policy issues so that I am informed when entering the workforce and equipped with creative solutions and practical skills to tackle them. Specifically, understanding the process and key players of legislative development, the bureaucracies of current science policy holdups, and how strategic priorities are transformed and executed into practical policies will set me up for success as an advocate for biological and biomedical research in government.

Using no more than 250 words, describe your research as you would to a non-scientist.

Browning: What comes to mind when you think of evolution? Monkeys? Charles Darwin? Evolution is how the characteristics of a living organism change over time. Evolution supports adaptation. However, it can sometimes have detrimental consequences. Take, for example, bacteria. During an infection, doctors instruct patients to take every antibiotic dose. This is so pathogenic bacteria do not evolve and become resistant to antibiotics. Multidrug-resistant bacterial infections are projected to kill more people yearly than cancer by 2050. Thus, understanding how bacteria evolve is extremely important. My research focuses on one of the many ways bacteria evolve. A bacterium has two jobs: making substances to keep itself alive (proteins) and replicating itself.

Large molecular machines do these jobs, and they share the same resource, DNA. These molecular machines can run into each other like two vehicles on the same road. Rear-end collisions are not that bad for the cell. Head-on collisions are much worse like a head-on collision would be between two cars. Although the cell cannot stop head-on collisions from happening, they may provide one advantage: they cause more mutations to occur in the DNA. Mutations are usually harmful to cells. However, mutations are the fundamental basis for evolution. By generating mutations faster, head-on collisions help the bacterium evolve faster, potentially speeding up antibiotic resistance. My research attempts to understand how these collisions might contribute to the evolution of bacterial pathogens so we can better fight and win against them.

Briefly describe any past or present participation in additional career exploration activities, experiences, and/or programs.

Browning: In October 2022, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., to participate in a two-day, behind-the-scenes federal STEM policy workshop sponsored by the career development office of my university. This program is modeled on the AAAS Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) Workshop. This "crash course"-like venture introduced me to how STEM policy is made and the role of advocacy by various stakeholders in achieving policy goals. I have also attended numerous career exploration seminars and panels over the past five years, sponsored by my university, showcasing a large breadth of policy and advocacy roles in government. I am also collaborating with a colleague to write a policy memo advocating for public resources for the intellectual and developmental disability community to be submitted to the Journal of Science Policy and Governance. I have also honed my science communication skills through participating in various opportunities. Through a science communication internship with the Vanderbilt Institute for Infection, Immunity, and Inflammation and an eight-week science communication workshop module, I have become proficient in communicating science to non-science audiences.

Kaitlyn Browning is a member of American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, a FASEB member society.