Howard Garrison Advocacy Fellow

Katherine Lehmann

Katherine Lehmann is a graduate student at Oregon Health & Science University.

Describe your interest in participating in the program.

Lehmann: I found science advocacy through outreach to communities in rural Appalachia that lacked strong science education, either by choice or through political oversight. In this work, I gained an understanding of the policies that drove science skepticism and became curious about how societal structures like racism and classism kept certain communities from accessing science, leading to further distrust. I’d like to understand how policy works on a larger level to pursue a career that focuses on advocating for inclusive science and scientists at the federal level, and I hope the HGA program will provide me with that foundation. In college, I developed my interests in science and policy through dual majors in biology and science/health policy. After college, I participated in an NIH post-bac program where I pursued neuroscience research and joined the NIH Academy program, which works to produce scientists who can advocate for more equitable systems. During that program, I led outreach efforts for homeschooled students and facilitated discussions between students from community colleges and NIH scientists. I realized that much of the work I had been involved in focused on outreach to rural, religious, and racially minoritized populations, but due to larger policies, many young students from these populations didn’t see themselves reflected in the scientists they interacted with. I got the chance to pursue more policy focused advocacy in graduate school. I served as the Education and Communication Chair for an organization that worked to increase racial diversity and inclusion in the biomedical graduate programs at our university.

As education chair, I built programming to facilitate difficult conversations about racism in science but also highlighted diversity by celebrating and hosting scientists from diverse backgrounds. I was involved in writing policies that evaluated applications through an anti-racist lens and had the opportunity to implement the policy as a member of the admissions committee. Finally, I co-wrote—and successfully advocated for—a policy that restructured racial equity, leading to the creation of a Racial Equity and Inclusion center that has both increased diversity and facilitated a sense of inclusion for students from backgrounds that are historically excluded from science. This work was meaningful but limited. We spent years writing and implementing policies that won’t surpass our institution, even if the ideas are scalable. I started in science outreach and learned that outreach was limited by the policy that necessitated the outreach. I moved more towards policy. I learned that the policy is limited by the breadth with which it can be applied. This has led me here: I hope to move into a realm that allows for broad policy implementation that creates more opportunities and support for early career scientists from minoritized backgrounds. The HGA program will give me a more formal introduction to federal science policy so that I can understand how agencies like the NIH and NSF shape science and science education through their policies, allowing me to advocate for accessible and equitable science successfully.

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

Lehmann: I would like to help scientists understand how to create or leverage existing policy to get funding and support for equity initiatives while also ensuring that initiatives don’t have unintended consequences. For instance, our state has a pay equity law that has led to graduate students and postdocs losing previously provided childcare benefits. I would love to facilitate a conversation between all the stakeholders that could lead to a new understanding or a slight reworking of the law that would allow people to retain these benefits. I don’t have the network or knowledge to facilitate these conversations right now, but I believe working through case studies and getting an overview of the policy and legislative processes will allow me to address these sorts of issues better. I would also use the experience of this program to gain knowledge about careers that I can pursue in science policy or careers that can incorporate science policy. I haven’t had the opportunity to interact with people who work exclusively on science policy, and I’m unsure of what skill sets I need to develop as I’m unsure of what the career actually entails. I think that through opportunities like Capitol Hill Day and participating in monthly FASEB Science Policy Committee meetings, I’ll be able to develop communication and leadership skills that will let me enter and be impactful in the science policy community.

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

Lehmann: When your brain forms, it isn't very good at being a brain immediately; it takes a while to get wired up correctly. For a long time, scientists have known that brains actually overwire during development and then slowly figure out what connections are needed and get rid of the connections that aren't useful. We know this process can lead to neurodevelopmental disorders when it doesn't happen correctly. We don't know how molecules tell the brain to keep certain connections while getting rid of other connections. I study how the brain makes that decision and use the fruit fly to understand the process. Fruit flies and humans have brains that are similar on a molecular level. This lets us use the flies to model what will happen in human brains. I get rid of certain molecules in the brain, and I then see if that manipulation has an effect on what connections are eliminated during development. One of the advantages of using the fly is that I can quickly screen through hundreds or even thousands of molecules and look at the effect of those molecules on brain development. One of the really interesting things I've found is that a molecule I'm studying has recently been identified as a risk factor for certain forms of Autism spectrum disorder, so I'm trying to understand why that is and how that could be addressed therapeutically.

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

Lehmann: I haven’t had any structured science policy activities. However, I’ve conducted informational interviews with alumni who have entered science policy and have co-planned two alumni career panels that allowed me to network with alumni who have careers outside of academia. This past year, I participated in a program called Training Future Faculty, which teaches participants how to teach science. Since I was concurrently a visiting professor at Lewis & Clark College (a local liberal arts school) teaching introductory cell biology, and because I had a pre-existing interest in equity, I worked with my mentor in the program to figure out a curriculum that incorporated equity into an introductory science class. One of the ways I did this was by implementing peer to peer teaching, which research has suggested helps address equity gaps in the classroom. The program and teaching experience were incredibly valuable and taught me a lot about communicating science, mentoring students, and structuring feedback.

Katherine Lehmann is a member of Genetics Society of America and American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, FASEB member societies.