How Science Informs Advocacy

Zachary Kiser, PhD
2019-2020 ASH Congressional Fellow

Last year, the American Society of Hematology (ASH) selected Zachary Kiser, PhD, as its 2019-2020 ASH Congressional Fellow. 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.

Dr. Kiser, who was previously a post-doctoral fellow in the National Institutes of Health (NIH)–funded research program at the University of Minnesota, is spending the 2019-2020 academic year in Washington, D.C., where he is helping shape health care and hematology policy in Sen. Sherrod Brown’s congressional office.

A recent graduate of the ASH Advocacy Leadership Institute, Dr. Kiser has a policy interest in health disparities in minority populations and has focused his research on developing novel treatments to improve the lives of patients with sickle cell disease. On Capitol Hill, he is continuing to refine his advocacy skills with the goal of bringing a research scientist perspective to governance.

In his first edition of “Notes From the Hill,” Dr. Kiser introduces himself and shares his initial experiences as an ASH Congressional Fellow.

When I was selected as the 2019-2020 ASH Congressional Fellow, ASH presented me with the opportunity of a lifetime. For the past 6 months I have been lucky enough to call the U.S. Senate my place of employment. Even in my short time on Capitol Hill, I have been exposed to experiences that I know have changed the trajectory of my life and my career.

Serving the Underserved

I grew up in rural Appalachia and lived in poverty and without access to basic necessities for the first few years of my life, witnessing firsthand the ravages of poor health policy. These experiences shaped who I am as a professional and as a person and led me to pursue a PhD in biomedical science from Morehouse School of Medicine, a historically black college in Atlanta. At Morehouse, I learned how to be a scientist who fights to champion those whom society has pushed to the margins.

Next, I completed a 2-year post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Minnesota, under the diligent tutelage of Gregory Vercellotti, MD, a former member of ASH’s Committee on Government Affairs. He was instrumental in helping me to bridge my interests in medical science with my passion for policy and advocacy.

In my training, I also had the privilege of getting to know patients with sickle cell disease (SCD) who often were forced to choose between purchasing food and their necessary medications. Together, these experiences have influenced my approach to health policy and provided me with the perspective necessary to craft and analyze health-care policy that prioritizes the needs of the most vulnerable Americans.

Connecting Science and Advocacy

I have engaged in years of advocacy, which has allowed me to understand the processes for developing policy and crafting legislation. In my research career, for example, I focused on developing new treatments for SCD. This encouraged me to get involved with the SCD-focused grassroots advocacy community in Georgia.

My exploration of scientific advocacy led me to become involved with the National Science Policy Group, an organization comprising hundreds of graduate students dedicated to training future scientists to be effective advocates for sound health science policy.

I also participated in the 2018 ASH Advocacy Leadership Institute (ALI). During the ALI educational and training activities, I immersed myself in learning about the minutiae of hematology policy, expanding my knowledge base and improving my oral and written communication skills. Policy solutions are often meaningless without the backing of the stakeholder community and public buy-in; being able to translate complex policy concepts into relatable advocacy priorities is essential for gaining support.

My doctoral education, at its foundation, taught me how to apply critical thinking skills to solve novel and complex problems in the lab. Beyond this, my education and the wonderful guidance from ASH has facilitated my ability to effectively communicate those solutions to an outside audience.

Now, as a congressional fellow sponsored by ASH and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I’m working in the office of Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH). Already, I have been exposed to new perspectives on policy development and the legislative process. I’m using this knowledge to build on my previous advocacy experiences.

During the first few months of my fellowship, I have consistently drawn upon my previous career as an NIH-funded biomedical researcher to advocate for people with neglected diseases, while developing several pieces of public health–related legislation. I have overseen the development of an original piece of legislation for the purpose of democratizing and improving clinical trial participation, with a particular focus on young adults, to be introduced later this year. I have also directed the development and drafting of three original pieces of legislation to improve the security and ensure the safety of pharmaceutical products manufactured abroad, to be introduced this year. Without my familiarity with the funding framework of the NIH and Health Resources and Services Administration, as well as the Public Health Service Act, I would not have been able to properly craft and formulate these pieces of legislation.