I was selected to visit Washington, D.C. to represent UAB at the three-and-a-half day AAAS CASE (Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering) Workshop. This workshop was created to provide students who are interested in learning about Congress, the federal budget process and effective science communication an introduction into all of these topics as well as a deep dive into how science policy is enacted.

chris radka with u.s. rep john mica

The itinerary for the 2016 workshop featured a schmorgis board of experts and insiders of legislation, budgets, science communication, congressional committees, federal processes and lobbying amongst other topics.

During one of the sessions on the first full day of the workshop, participants broke up into small groups to interact with the portion of the federal budget that funds science. We were tasked to attempt to reallocate funding from different programs and agencies to areas (that we thought) needed more/less funding, and then convince our groups that our reallocation was good enough to pass through Congress.

This task is more challenging than it may seem on the surface because Science is funded from the same appropriations pot of money that funds Commerce and Justice. In essence, every dollar taken from justice theoretically makes the country less safe, and every dollar taken from commerce hurts national economic development. Although everybody in the room agreed that scientific research will benefit from more federal support, we learned why facilitating this support is difficult and, at times, controversial.

Some key takeaways from workshop sessions include the importance of why more scientists need to be involved in policy. The media does not often accurately explain science because science communication is not often actually done by scientists. An unfortunate consequence is that non-subject matter experts who rely on the media to be informed about scientific topics can actually be receiving incomplete or misinformation.

Second, the Congressional composition (114th Congress) includes many new House and Senate members where less than 5 percent of the population have backgrounds in science. Notably, in the House, many of the elected officials have only been serving since 2008. From my personal experience interacting with members of Congress, I was very impressed by how well they understood scientific issues. We were able to have rich discussions about science policy, emerging technologies, and recent breakthroughs. With that said subject matter experts can enhance scientific understanding and provide deeper insight into subjects such as alternative applications of different areas of science, and future directions of where fields may go.

For any future scientists reading this post who get an opportunity to interact with an elected official, there are two major considerations I suggest to keep in mind. In my opinion, the best way to communicate scientific ideas is through stories – perhaps the story of how something was discovered or an example of the impact a breakthrough has had on society. Resist the urge to discuss data or use technical jargon like abbreviations or chemical names. Further, and in some ways, more importantly, tie issues and agendas back to the districts of the elected officials. Bonus points and kudos if the review of past legislation an elected official has supported or sponsored reveals alignment with science agendas; use that alignment as a springboard for conversation. I did this and I believe that it was well received and I was able to connect with our representatives in D.C. on a deeper level of common ground.

If this sounds like something you are interested to participate in and want to learn more about, inform the Graduate School and apply for the opportunity. The following paragraphs provide insight and recommendations based on suggestions I was given before visiting D.C., personal trial and error, and information I received from Congressional staffers and other federal employees. I had been to D.C. once before in high school, but attending the conference and learning from the AAAS made this trip the best. Apply, apply, apply.

Extracurricular activity

Plan ahead. When I was first informed that I would be going to D.C., I immediately started researching which elected officials were the most aligned with my personal agenda and refreshing on their positions. As I mentioned, I also considered the legislation all the officials I met have supported. Do not limit the review of their platforms to what is on the first few pages of their websites. With enough forewarning and some luck, it is possible to get face time with officials directly.

I was able to spend time with my local Congressman, Representative John Mica, who was extremely gracious with his time and came through with a gallery pass for the House of Representatives. Like Mr. Mica for me, your local representative wants to see you and will help you in any way he/she can, so see them. I was also fortunate to get time to speak with one of our Alabama senators, Richard Shelby, who is incredibly personable, thoughtful and happy to meet constituents. When interacting with an elected official or a member of their staff, remember they are citizens just like you, have faced many of the same challenges you have and are sensitive to many of the same concerns that you have; you have more in common than you may realize.

Depending on how these interactions go with elected officials and/or their staff, consider requesting gallery passes to the House or Senate. What this does is allow entry into the space where Congress actually votes on bills. I was able to obtain a gallery pass came from Senator Patty Murray’s office, and watched the Senate vote on an Energy Bill that is going to change the energy landscape of the nation. Aside from observing history in the making (which is awesome in its own right), while I was in the gallery I saw the Senators vote in a way that was unexpected. In the Senate, Senators informally cast their support or opposition by making eye contact with the clerk and gesturing – thumbs up (yay), point down (nay) – whereas in contrast, Representatives in the House vote electronically. If the opportunity presents itself to do this then check this out, you’ll see what I mean.

How to get a staffer position in Washington, D.C.

At times, this seemed to be the $64,000-question that I asked the many lobbyists and staffers I interacted with on Capitol Hill. Unless there’s a personal connection to someone who is already plugged into where you want to work, there are at three main ways to get a position. The least likely for success is the cold call. I would not recommend this method because these offices already get inundated will calls and a request for an interview will more often than not be ignored.

The next method is through open solicitation when positions are advertised on officials’ websites. These opportunities are rare and attract hundreds of applicants per position. By all means, apply for these, but just remember that every application is a needle in a haystack. The best way to break through to science policy is through policy-oriented fellowships. These opportunities are offered by many scientific societies, are more focused and organized, and on average pay more than what one would make by simply being selected through application to an official’s website.


Birmingham is well known for its food industry, as visitors and residents seldom struggle to find agreeable venues or genres to eat. D.C. did not disappoint, and for someone who has enjoyed the eats of Birmingham, I was fortunate to experience some gems of the city that may rival those of Birmingham. For any who are traveling to D.C., I strongly recommend checking out two restaurants in particular: Lincoln Restaurant (where I enjoyed a delectable fried chicken/waffle brunch) and The Hamilton (where the mood and food converge to create the perfect dinner venue).

City Organization

Like many downtowns across the U.S., D.C. is organized by a grid-like system (courtesy of Thomas Jefferson), where numbered and lettered streets allow for easy navigation. With that said, there are roads named after states (courtesy of Pierre L’Enfant) that contain many important buildings such as the White House (Pennsylvania Ave). Travelers beware: unless you know exactly where you are going, resist any and all temptation to take the roads named after states and stick to Jefferson’s numbered and lettered road system. This will improve routing, with particular emphasis on evening exploration. Since most of the daytime of my trip was spent in a workshop, I did the majority of my city exploration in the evening. Heed this warning!


The Smithsonian Museums are free and worth checking out. My personal favorites are the National Museums of Air and Space and Natural History. The memorials are also free and some are open late; be sure to google operating hours and tour schedules before arriving in D.C. – it is well worth the effort to make the tours. A great way to get around D.C. is using the Capital Bikeshare program. These bikes are easily identifiable all over town because their visibility is compounded by their red color and yellow print. I had the opportunity to also tour the Library of Congress and attend a lecture in the Supreme Court building. These were free things to do, very informative and (I thought) entertaining.

Christopher Radka is a Ph.D candidate in the GBS Microbiology Theme. He is mentored by Dr. Lawrence J DeLucas.