June 04, 2014
By C.J. Janovy
The University of Kansas Medical Center doesn't just train students to become excellent health care providers and biomedical researchers. Part of the university's mission is to educate leaders — and sometimes that means actually educating leaders.
That's what Angela Pierce, a Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience in KU Medical Center's Department of Anatomy & Cell Biology, did this spring. As secretary of the Kansas City Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience, Pierce participated in Capitol Hill Day on March 28, when more than 45 neuroscientists from across the country met with staffers at more than 75 congressional offices. They discussed advances in the field of neuroscience, shared the economic and public health benefits of investment in biomedical research, and made the case for strong national investment in scientific research through the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation.
"As a student, it is very difficult to gain access to these kinds of opportunities," says Pierce, who got the chance to go to Washington when she was selected as one of the Society for Neuroscience's twelve inaugural Early Career Policy Fellows. As part of the year-long program, early career scientists who are interested in science policy and advocacy learn how to become effective advocates for science and how to encourage others to do the same.
Before the congressional visits, Pierce memorized key statistics including the annual cost of neurological illness and disease in the U.S. (more than $760 billion), the percentage of Americans who believe that investing in health research should be a "top" or "high" priority (61 percent) and the economic benefit of National Institutes of Health funding (every dollar of NIH research funding is estimated to generate $2.21 in economic output).
"I researched NIH and NSF funding at the state institutional levels across Kansas and Missouri," Pierce says. "And I studied the congressman or senator's voting record for scientific appropriations funding. I also memorized what committees or subcommittees the member serves on or chairs." In addition to participating in the Society for Neuroscience's training webinars, Pierce practiced role-playing with other fellows.
Pierce and others from the society had half-hour meetings with staffers from the offices of Sen. Pat Roberts and Rep. Kevin Yoder from Kansas, and with Sen. Claire McCaskill and representatives Sam Graves and William Lacy Clay from Missouri. They used their time to ask for at least $32 billion for NIH and $7.5 billion for NSF in fiscal year 2015 and to invite the congressmen and senators to join the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus or attend briefings from the caucus and visit a neuroscience laboratory in their districts.
Specifically, Pierce invited the politicians to visit the lab of Julie Christianson, Ph.D., assistant professor of Anatomy and Cell Biology, where Pierce works. "I explained the type of research we conduct to understand the relationship between early life adverse events such as abuse or neglect and the onset of chronic pelvic pain syndromes and co-morbid mood disorders in adulthood," Pierce says. "This research has an impact on understanding chronic diseases currently suffered by millions of Americans, for whom there are no feasible treatment options. I also explained how investments in work like ours have implications for not only health and prosperity but also for relieving disability and the enormous financial burden imposed by these chronic diseases."
Christianson notes that, in addition to her Society for Neuroscience fellowship, Pierce is also the recipient of a University of Kansas Madison and Lila Self Graduate Fellowship. That fellowship provides development opportunities for exceptional Ph.D. students in business, economics, engineering, mathematics, biological, biomedical, pharmaceutical, bioinformatics, and physical sciences who demonstrate the promise to make significant contributions to their fields of study and society as a whole.
"She's very inquisitive, always has a lot of questions, she's very engaged. She always wants to learn more about whatever it is that anyone's talking about," Christianson says. Because Pierce started working in Christianson's lab at the same time as Christianson joined the KU Medical Center faculty, Christianson says, "I wouldn't be where I am now without her in my lab. She's the work horse. She's very professional."
Pierce says she hopes to participate in future advocacy campaigns. "All in all it was a lot of work, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and believe we made a successful impact on individuals with key positions to influence NIH and NSF funding as an investment in our nation's future."
Pierce was visiting congressional offices not on behalf of KU Medical Center but on behalf of the Society for Neuroscience. (For information on how to work with members of Congress, see the University of Kansas' Public Affairs website on Federal Relations.)