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Chemistry Grad Student Wins Trip to D.C.

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Nicole Gordon

2017 Capitol Hill Visits Essay Contest

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Graduate student Molly Haugen, who is pursuing a PhD in DU's Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, got an in-depth look at the intersection of science and policy on a trip to Washington, D.C., in May. Haugen and five other students from around the country won the 2017 Capitol Hill Visits Essay Contest. Sponsored by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), the program gives undergraduate and graduate students an opportunity to accompany UCAR leadership on a trip to the Capitol to meet members of Congress, attend special briefings by Hill staffers, and hear from senior leadership in weather, climate, and water. We caught up with Haugen to hear about her experience.

UCAR leadership and winners of the 2017 Capitol Hill Visits Essay Contest in Washington, D.C. From left to right: Jennifer Griswold, Univ. of Hawaii; PACUR representative Joel Widder, co-founder and partner at Federal Science Partners; Rebecca Anderson, Univ. of North Dakota; Abigail Ahlert, CU-Boulder; Tony Busalacchi, UCAR president; Molly Haugen, Univ. of Denver
UCAR leadership and winners of the 2017 Capitol Hill Visits Essay Contest in Washington, D.C. From left to right: Jennifer Grisw

You must have written an excellent essay. What was your motivation for pursuing this opportunity with UCAR?

I wrote about growing up on a farm in northern Minnesota, and how my childhood there led me to appreciate the natural environment and, by extension, develop an interest in global science leadership. As a chemist, I study trends in diesel emissions. I'd like to see an impact from my work and be an advocate for science and science communications.

Tell us a bit about the trip to Washington, D.C.

It was a whirlwind! We met a lot of people and shook a lot of hands. We met with the UCAR Board of Trustees and UCAR President's Advisory Committee on University Relations, and were briefed on advocacy for science funding. We met with senators' staffers, including the staffs of Colorado senators Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet. The point was to show that the science community has a face. We also toured the Capitol and got to see the underground tunnels, which was fun. We were in D.C. while James Comey [former director of the FBI] was fired, so there was a lot of chaos on Capitol Hill, with the media and staffers in a frenzy. I liked the intensity – it was an adrenaline rush.

What are some of the highlights from what you learned about science communications?

As scientists we need to be sure that we are doing good science, because if we're not accurate, people will latch onto one bad story. I also learned the importance finding common concerns and building on those, and giving people something they can relate to in real life. Not everyone is a scientist, so you need to give people soundbites. And explain to them how the world would look if your research didn't exist.

What surprised you the most?

The biggest surprise for me was that what we hear in the media is very different than what people on Capitol Hill were saying. The staffers we talked to were very supportive of science and wanted to talk to us and work with us. I was also surprised by how chaotic it was – everyone has their own agenda and it's very intense.

How did the experience inform your own research as a graduate student in the sciences here at DU?

It helped me see where I can best put my own efforts as a scientist. Right now, that's in doing good science. My research on trends in diesel emissions is used by regulatory policymakers, so I need to make sure it gets into the right hands. It needs to be accessible to people other than just like-minded scientists.

Do you see yourself getting more involved with science policy and communications as your career moves forward?

I really like doing research and wouldn't want to give that up, but yes, I want to serve as a contact point for policymakers and people with a voice in the legislative process. I plan to stay in touch with my contacts at UCAR. Overall, I came out of the trip feel much more positive than when I went in.