Howard Garrison Advocacy Fellow
Natalie Gehred is a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Describe your interest in participating in the program.
Gehred: I began my career in molecular biology research to improve outcomes for patients with cardiac disease. As I’ve studied the molecular mechanisms of cardiac fibrosis, however, I’ve become more interested in the societal structures that impact human health and the research environment in which it is studied. My goal is to pursue a career in policy to facilitate scientific research and improve patient access to the output of scientific discoveries. The Howard Garrison Advocacy Fellowship will help me develop the skills required to pursue a career in science policy while allowing me to contribute to FASEB’s important work advocating for scientific research and funding to the public and policymakers. Specifically, I am excited to advance my understanding of the role of science policy and advocacy in the biological research enterprise, gain real-world advocacy skills, and build a community with others who are also interested in careers in biological and biomedical research policy. Science policy dramatically impacts my work as an academic researcher. For example, my postbaccalaureate research at NIH was stalled by several threats of government shutdown, my decision to attend graduate school at UCLA was informed by California’s legal, publicly-funded stem cell research program, and the proposed federal 2024 budget indicates that securing grants from the NHLBI next year may be more difficult for my current lab. These experiences underscored how science policy determines how research is conducted, from the basic ability of researchers to show up to the lab, to the specific topics that receive funding. Because I have seen the many ways that research policy directly affects scientists, I am excited to participate in FASEB’s Science Policy Course to formally learn how diverse government agencies work together to influence US biological and biomedical research. As a graduate student, I frequently communicate my research to scientists and funding organizations through presentations, publications, and grant applications.
The in-depth science communication training included in the Howard Garrison Advocacy Fellowship will help me adapt these skills to communicate the significance of biological research to non-scientists and policymakers. I am particularly excited to attend Capitol Hill Day with other Fellows to practice communicating the importance of sustained, robust biomedical research funding with members of Congress and their staff. These skills will also help me advocate for state and local policies I support and provide a strong foundation for my future career. Lastly, I have helped build a community of graduate students interested in science policy at UCLA and am enthusiastic about the opportunity to expand this professional network to Howard Garrison Advocacy Fellows and alumni by participating in monthly FASEB Science Policy Committee meetings. Academic researchers take many different paths to science policy careers, so speaking with Fellows from diverse backgrounds and at various stages of their careers provides valuable perspectives that students don’t often encounter in graduate school. I hope to bring these insights back to UCLA to help more students pursue science policy and advocacy.
How do you plan to use the knowledge and experience gained through your participation in the Howard Garrison Advocacy Program?
Gehred: I will use the knowledge and experience gained through the Howard Garrison Advocacy Program to more effectively advocate for the research community at UCLA and nationally through my various professional networks. I am a member of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) and the American Heart Association (AHA) and hope to contribute to the societies' policy-related publications and newsletters. The Howard Garrison Advocacy Program's science policy training will help me identify the players, stakeholders, and legislative landscapes surrounding the policies relevant to these organizations and communicate my policy ideas and opinions more effectively to other scientists and the public. The program's opportunities to practice writing and talking to policymakers will also help me become a more valuable participant in the ASBMB's and AHA's advocacy initiatives, such as letter-writing campaigns and Capitol Hill Days. Beyond my increased participation in professional societies, I would also like to share what I learn from the program with other passionate graduate students through the UCLA Science Policy Group. As the group's Science Communication Committee Chair, I hope to use the Howard Garrison Advocacy Program's training in op-ed writing for popular media to lead a writing workshop during our 2024 Advocacy Day. I am excited about the opportunity to use what I learn from the Howard Garrison Advocacy Program to increase awareness among academics about policies that affect our research and increase researchers' involvement in advocacy work.
Using no more than 250 words, describe your research as you would to a non-scientist.
Gehred: The heart contains both muscle cells and non-muscle cells. One of these non-muscle cell types is called a fibroblast. When the heart is stressed or injured, fibroblasts respond by becoming ‘activated.’ This means the fibroblasts take on new functions: migrating and multiplying, producing scar tissue, and promoting inflammation. While some of these activities are initially beneficial, the excess scar tissue produced by activated fibroblasts can eventually stiffen the heart and prevent it from pumping blood as it should, a medical condition known as fibrosis. Reducing cardiac fibrosis will allow patients to live longer and healthier lives. To achieve this, we must understand how cardiac fibroblasts become activated. Our lab has identified a protein that we think may be involved: a DNA-packaging protein called H1.0. To test this, we are modulating H1.0 levels in mice that are given a drug to cause cardiac stress. We have found that the mice with less H1.0 have less fibrosis in response to the drug, indicating that H1.0 may promote fibrosis. Because we hypothesize that H1.0’s DNA-packaging function is involved in fibroblast activation, we are isolating individual fibroblasts from stressed mouse hearts with either normal or reduced levels of H1.0 to examine how differences in DNA packaging in these cells are connected to changes in gene expression and cellular activity. The impact of this project will be to reveal how H1.0 participates in diseased heart function and if it may be targeted to combat fibrosis.
Briefly describe any past or present participation in additional career exploration activities, experiences, and/or programs.
Gehred: My involvement with the UCLA Science Policy Group (UCLA SPG) and participation in the AAAS Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) Workshop have helped me develop foundational skills in science policy, communication, and advocacy. Since I became a member in 2021, UCLA SPG has provided me the opportunity to apply my research skills to policy-related topics. I have collaborated with other members to write several policy memos related to reproductive healthcare, which has honed my skills in tracking legislation, researching policy outcomes, and translating these into legislative recommendations. This past academic year, I was appointed to an officer role. I led several policy writing projects, conducted a series of career interviews with SPG alumni, and organized events for the broader UCLA community focused on science communication, policy writing, and infographic design. This past March, UCLA’s Graduate Programs in Biosciences selected me to attend the AAAS CASE Workshop to learn the skills required to be a liaison between the scientific community and policymakers on Capitol Hill. At CASE, I learned about the federal budget and policymaking process and strategies for advocating for scientific education and research to legislators. These valuable experiences have fed my interest in science policy by underscoring the importance of science and data in shaping effective policies and the importance of well-crafted policies in enabling scientific progress.
Natalie Gehred is a member of American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, a FASEB member society.