Notes From the Hill

Postdoctoral fellow in the department of pathology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine

The American Society of Hematology (ASH) has selected Catherine Zander, PhD, to participate in the new ASH Congressional Fellowship program. The program aims to connect hematologists to the policy-making process and educate congressional members and staff about issues that are important to hematologists and their patients.

As the first ASH Congressional Fellow, Dr. Zander will spend a year in Washington, DC, (September 2017 to September 2018) working in a congressional office to contribute to health-care and hematology policy. In “Notes From the Hill,” a new column in ASH Clinical News, Dr. Zander will share her experiences as she works closely with elected officials to ensure hematologists’ voices are heard in the policy-making process.

In the first edition, Dr. Zander introduces herself and shares her initial experiences as an ASH Congressional Fellow.

When I walked into the Ford House Office Building on Capitol Hill that first October morning, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

I had spent the previous two weeks in an off-site training with my peers: 36 legislative fellows, 242 executive branch fellows, and the single judicial branch and Roger Revelle fellow in global stewardship of this year’s AAAS Science and Technology Policy cohort. I learned more about how the U.S. government operates in those two weeks than I had in four years as an undergraduate majoring in political science. I also learned how to be an effective ambassador for science and strategies to relay my knowledge to a larger audience, but I didn’t yet know where I would spend my year on the Hill or what that role would entail.

Prior to coming to D.C., I worked in the lab of X. Long Zheng, MD, PhD, at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where our research focused on developing novel treatments for thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP). I was interested in a fellowship position that focused on a topic that didn’t overlap with the legislative agenda of ASH, with the goal of avoiding any ethically challenging situations.

I was initially unsure what type of office I wanted to join, whether I wanted to be in the House of Representatives or the Senate, or if I wanted to be in a member’s office or in a committee. After interviewing with several different offices, I decided to join a committee working with several congressional members instead of a particular congressperson’s office, so I could work on policy, rather than the priorities of one member’s constituents.

It was impressed upon us in the AAAS training that one year is not enough time to accomplish significant legislative change, so we needed to adjust our expectations. What I wanted was the best possible learning experience. I was fortunate to secure a fellowship  placement on the Democratic staff of the Environment Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the many health policy issues related to soil, air, noise, and water contamination, as well as emergency environmental response. This means the committee provides oversight to many aspects of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“As scientists, we need to be more engaged in defending our work and ensuring the policies of our government are based in evidence and reason.”

In my first month within the committee, I began reading and writing about the Toxic Substance Control Act and the EPA’s plan to evaluate toxic chemicals (including asbestos and trichloroethylene). But much of that time was consumed with the agency’s response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. We had several hearings with EPA representatives from Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico/the Virgin Islands on the preparations for the storm.

With the intent of transparent response and government action accountability, witnesses (including, Catherine Kennedy, RN, from National Nurses United, Julio Rhymer, executive director and chief executive officer of the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority, and Ramón Luis Nieves, former chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, Senate of Puerto Rico) and executive branch agency representatives to testify on the human health and environmental impacts of the storms, including the lack of power to medical facilities and potable water in Puerto Rico, the threat to the 50 medical device-manufacturing plants in Puerto Rico, and the fires at the Arkema Inc. chemical plant in Texas, as well as myriad other issues raised by the storms.

In some ways, the expertise and the depth of knowledge of the long- term committee staffers reminds me of working with a principal investigator in a  laboratory, but that’s where the similarities to academia end. One recent assignment was to write a preliminary draft of a memo regarding the “The Mission of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,” which will be EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s first time testifying on the Hill since his appointment. In academic writing there is time to ruminate on ideas and continuously revise. This is not the case in Washington. Things must be done quickly and timelines are firm; otherwise, the information simply won’t reach the public.

That means getting up to speed quickly on unfamiliar issues to become comfortable enough to write about them. I’m adjusting to not having the time to dive in and learn about every aspect of a topic. As a scientist, I want to back up everything I say. For example, when writing about agriculture contamination of drinking water, I wanted to explain exactly what causes methemoglobinemia, and why it effects certain groups and not others, but that wasn’t the goal. My mentor’s feedback on my first letter was that I included way too much information. We need to broadcast the information and state that the consequences are bad, but not why they’re bad.

For many of the issues we deal with on the committee, the science is clear, but every subject today becomes politicized. There is also a great deal of perversion of science, like the appropriation and misuse of the term “peer review,” to give climate change–deniers equal voice in the conversation. These problems help clarify why I wanted this fellowship so much: There is no point in doing meaningful research if there is no chance of it being used in important decisions. As scientists, we need to be more engaged in defending our work and ensuring the policies of our government are based in evidence and reason.

Although there is a lot for me to learn, I am remarkably grateful that I get to be part of the committee’s work. The work isn’t always fun in today’s political climate, but it is terribly important. On my way to work in the morning, I walk past the Capitol Building and see tourists taking pictures, and I’m reminded of how lucky I am to be here. Similarly, when I’m listening to the senior committee staff and congressional members preparing before a hearing, I am reminded what a privilege this remarkable opportunity is.