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U professors impact federal policy through D.C. fellowships

AAAS Science & Technology Fellowships bring researchers' expertise to the federal government, and teaches scientists the policymaking process.

One of the latest University of Utah researchers to head to the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., to join in the policymaking process isn’t a political scientist or lawyer—he’s a geoscientist. Sudeep Kanungo, a research associate in the U’s Energy & Geoscience Institute, is one of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) Science & Technology Policy Fellows this year. His placement is with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Geothermal Technologies Office.

“I will be learning about relevant policy and funding mechanisms, and managing the strategy, and collaborations of DOE with various parts of the Department of Defense (DOD) to implement geothermal energy solutions,” Kanungo says. “It’s a challenging role and an exciting opportunity to do something new. I will get to apply my scientific background to making and implementing federal policy.”

Kanungo’s fellowship, and the fellowships of U. researchers who preceded him, provide a dual opportunity for researchers to impact society, both through sharing their expertise with federal policymakers and through using what they’ve learned to heighten the impact of their research back here in Utah.

From microfossils to an MBA

Sudeep Kanungo.

Kanungo is an expert in micropaleontology. That’s the study of microscopic fossils such as algae and pollen, to learn about the age and past environments of a particular location or rock formation. Such analysis is important in energy exploration as geologists hope to learn all they can about the environment in which a rock was formed to help them understand how energy resources may move through or be trapped by those rocks.

His particular expertise is in calcareous nannoplankton, plankton that form shells containing calcium carbonate. These plankton are living today, but Kanungo studies calcareous nannoplankton from the Cretaceous period, which is famous for source rocks related to episodes of oxygen depletion in ancient sediments.

Because many of his research projects have been funded by industry, Kanungo earned an MBA from the U’s David Eccles School of Business while working at EGI.

“I got an MBA to improve my application and understanding of corporate relationship-building to enhance my research funding, manage my projects, and hone my people (human resources) skills in an impactful way,” Kanungo says.

That MBA sparked his interest in U.S. science policy, public service, and ultimately the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship. After getting his MBA, Kanungo served in the University of Utah Academic Senate as a College of Engineering senator from 2015-2018.

Professors’ previous impacts

Paul Rubin.

An interest in education policy led Paul Rubin, now an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership & Policy, to secure a congressional fellowship through the American Educational Research Association, which partners with AAAS, in 2017. He worked as a congressional staff member to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

“I found the entire experience to be very eye-opening,” he says. “For example, a colleague described the 100 Senate offices as 100 small businesses, with each senator serving as a CEO overseeing how their office is run and basing decisions on what they believe will best serve their constituencies. I heard similar remarks from fellows in the House.”

There’s no such thing as a “regular” day, Rubin says, as each day could have a combination of constituent and advocate meetings, letter, memo and legislation drafting, meetings with other congressional offices – and then the entire schedule could be changed in a moment due to national breaking news or events in the senator’s home state.

Now, back at the U, Rubin is using his experience to focus on how education policy is made at the federal and state level, particularly recent higher education policy changes in Utah.

“I am also continuing to conduct research with colleagues on intermediary organizations at the state and federal levels that serve as information providers to policy-makers to gauge their effectiveness and influence on policy,” he says.

Ryan Stolley.

Ryan Stolley, a research assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, completed his AAAS fellowship in the Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office from 2015 to mid-2017.

“I am an organic chemist so a lot of what is handled in the office was completely different than my training,” Stolley says. He managed a project portfolio in addressing barriers to solar energy employment that weren’t related to technology, like education and finance.

“I was burned out from my Ph.D. and post-doc so it was a cool opportunity to see life and work outside the lab,” he says. “Living in D.C. was extremely cool. Great museums of course, but also sports and food. It’s very international and there is a lot of turnover of people so it’s always fresh.”

Stolley says that in his two current roles, as associate director for the Science Research Initiative in the College of Science and as Principal Chemist at startup Glycosurf Inc., his experience from his fellowship is more useful than ever.

His role in the Science Research Initiative involves overseeing a large program including interactions with students, faculty and administration, while managing the program’s budget.

“This was very much in line with what I was doing at DOE in dealing with large programs with various stakeholders at various levels within the government and public at large,” he says.

At Glycosurf, he’s finding that his experience in grant writing and the grant review process during his fellowship have been helpful in securing grant money for the startup. “We have been successful and have been winning significant grants.”

U represented in the DOE 

Kanungo’s experience will include learning about decarbonizing our defense and military facilities by implementing geothermal technology that contributes to a carbon pollution-free electric sector by 2035 and a net-zero emission economy by 2050. He will be expected to work across multiple levels and branches of DOE and DOD to accomplish this task.

“I hope to bring back a nuanced understanding of the U.S. policy-making process—not just the theoretical aspects, but rather the sausage-making and how it works,” he continues. “The experience of working in Washington, D.C. will be a unique asset and I am sure there will be multiple applications of energy policy that can be implemented by the University of Utah to remain in the forefront of energy transition innovative technology developments.”

Find out how to apply for an AAAS Science & Technology Fellowship here.