Yo Pearl Salutes Cool Science Chicks: Meet Carolyn Dong

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By Nicole L Garneau, PhD

I first read about Dr. Carolyn Dong (now Shore) in one of my very favorite nerd guilty-pleasures, a publication by the American Society for Microbiology called MICROBE (see this link for more MICROBE madness). When I looked her up on her advisor's website, I was stoked to see this:

Learn more about Carolyn's past research here: http://www.uiowa.edu/microbiology/kirbylab/dong.shtml



No way was this chick both super smart and super cool, but it turns out she very much is, and in more ways than just jumping out of a plane.


Carolyn was selected as a 2011-2012 Congressional Science Fellow to represent microbiology at our nation's capital. This is an incredibly competitive process, which makes sense as this is a highly sought after and prestigious position. The program gets real scientists involved in government. The result? Scientists who become better communicators and who can then help change the landscape of law and policy making by bringing a real understanding and translation of science into the hands of elected officials.




I checked in with Carolyn in January to see how her first four months in D.C. were treating her. When she was highlighted in MICROBE she was passionate and excited. "Government sets the rules through legislation and implementation of policies. As a scientist, I want to participate in the rule-making processes involved in pharmaceutical regulation and health policy." I was very curious to know if this was still the case, because my understanding is that both on and off Capitol Hill, D.C. is rough.


No doubt about it, Carolyn is still as passionate, if not more so than when she started, and even better, she's still real, cool and approachable. When she got to D.C. to work under Congresswoman Louise Slaughter of New York, who Carolyn calls her "absolute hero," she says "I was caught off guard. Washington is a steep learning curve and you make a lot of mistakes at first. They train the scientist out of you." To all of you scientists out there, this might sound crazy and counterintuitive to the purpose of the fellowship, but truly, this makes sense. Here's why: as scientists were are taught that based on well-laid experiments we get results that lead to conclusions. But this thought pattern is not as applicable in the complex world that is human behavior, global economy, and societal demands. For example, Carolyn goes on, "Antibiotic resistance in agriculture is a huge public health problem. As a scientist there is an obvious solution based on the data. But to get there, well that's not how it works in D.C. because Congress has many things on their plate and science is just a portion of it."


That's where being able to effectively communicate comes into play, and this is not something we are taught in graduate school. Scientists are taught to know everything about one small part of one subject (for example, during my PhD I knew anything and everything about an obscure virus called Sindbis) and by default then not many people end up speaking the same jargon-driven language as you. That doesn't leave much room for understanding much about other topics, nor does it help you be an effective communicator of science to a general audience. This is one of the great things about this fellowship. It has been supported by the American Society for Microbiology since 1977. This means that Carolyn, and all those that came before her, and those that will come after, learn quickly that in order to effectively communicate and be heard, you must first listen and make room for really understanding about related topics and concerns that impact the science you are working to communicate, and use language that the greater public can understand. This is the start of effective and efficient partnerships between the many groups working in Washington D.C., including scientists, who are there to make a difference and get things done.


"From a distance," Carolyn thinks, "it looks like its dysfunctional and in constant gridlock, where nothing gets done. But being just a few months here you see so many staffers that are so hard-working and so smart, doing the best job they can with the resources they have."


No doubt, Carolyn took a big jump from the world of pipettes to the crazy land of Washington D.C., but the risk paid off. She is working every day to make a difference, and is already looking ahead to fellowships with the executive branch and potential with science advocacy groups. I imagine there are many more great jumps and steep learning curves in her future, so I can't help but ask, "As for your other big leap, skydiving?" Well, unlike D.C., a parachute likely won't see the likes of Carolyn again.


"And at the end of the day?" I ask her.


"I'm hopeful." She says. And so am I. For a girl that was born in California, raised in Massachusetts, and did a Fulbright in Brisbane, we're pretty lucky to have Carolyn, a true and thoughtful advocate, working as both an excellent communicator and a thorough scientist in our nation's capitol.

Carolyn -shore


For more information about the American Society for Microbiology's Congressional Science Fellow Program and to apply (next due date is Feb 22, 2013) you can visit: http://www.asm.org/asm/index.php/policy/congressional-science-fellowship-application.html

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