Career Snapshot – Conversation with Chelsea Marcho
AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow in the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security, USAID
Many conferences have adopted the virtual format in the COVID-19 era, including the American Society of Plant Biologists annual meeting (Plant Biology Worldwide Summit). As I browsed sponsors on the conference website during the summit, a booth caught my attention – Feed the Future from the United States Agency International Development (USAID). Out of curiosity, I entered the virtual booth and talked to one of the representatives – Chelsea Marcho, an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow. During our brief conversation at the Plant Biology Worldwide Summit, Chelsea gave me an overview of Feed the Future and its mission, which is to end the global hunger problem through international partnership and agricultural innovations. Our conversation went so well that I recently invited Chelsea to have a follow-up interview to talk about her career path and her experiences at USAID.
Getting to love science and science communication
Growing up in a small rural town of Pennsylvania, Chelsea was not aware that her recreational hobbies (breeding pigeons and trying out different ways to grow plants; check out this interview for more details) were actually scientific experiments. When she first began these pursuits, she thought science was boring, but her view of science changed in high school. Her teachers showed her the range and depth that science encompasses, which sparked her interest in biology and she subsequently majored in biology in college.
Upon finishing up her undergraduate degree, Chelsea spent a gap year back home in her family’s automobile shop. Many people who watched her growing up would come to the shop to ask her science questions. Sometimes, the questions were tricky or controversial, but she was able to facilitate fruitful, healthy conversations about science. Chelsea realized that she really enjoyed talking about science and wanted to communicate science beyond her hometown.
After the gap year, Chelsea entered the graduate program at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and studied epigenetic regulation in mammalian embryonic development. Over the course of her training, she often asked herself “How would I communicate this?” to diverse audiences. When she accepted an opportunity to run the core sequencing facility, she latched onto the chance to engage with various projects, including breast milk composition and soil microbiome. Even though she loved her own thesis research, she enjoyed learning about projects and emerging topics outside of her training topics, such as climate change and artificial intelligence.
Chelsea received the NSF-funded Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT; the program has ended), a fellowship aiming to prepare interdisciplinary scientists for real-world challenges, which got her to think acutely about her goals for a broader impact. Fueled by her passion of making science more accessible and approachable, she volunteered teaching in 5th grader classrooms about basic concepts (genetics, evolution, embryo development, etc.) and applications (GMOs); she and the students also extracted DNA from strawberries to show that there is DNA in our food.
“Scientists are normal people too,” said Chelsea and she aimed to break the stereotypes associated with scientists. She coached girls’ basketball during graduate school, and at the end of the semesters, she would invite the girls and their families to visit her lab and participate in hands-on experiments. Seeing her both as their coach and a scientist demonstrated that scientists are multi-faceted individuals, and helped her students visualize how someone who shared their interests can maintain a fruitful STEM career. Her mentorship and example encouraged the girls to pursue their own STEM interests.
Entering the science policy world
Chelsea first learned about science policy as a career path through the professional development workshops hosted by the UMass career center. The AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship caught her attention because of the opportunities to learn and practice communicating science to diverse audiences. In general, scientists and engineers with advanced degrees are placed in government agencies to experience and learn about policymaking as well as providing their scientific input. The duration of the fellowship is one year with the option to sign on for another year. Chelsea applied and started as a fellow in 2019.
Since her research background was in mammalian cell development, Chelsea anticipated to be placed in the NIH or NSF. She had not heard of the United States Agency International Development (USAID) until it was listed on her placement interview schedule. She even almost canceled the USAID interview because she had 16 interviews within 4 days. Luckily, USAID was the only interview of the day, and she reminded herself that one goal she wanted to achieve as a fellow was to experience new things. She went to the interview, and while the office space seemed standard, there was something about it that felt particularly special about the position. The interview went very well, and the unique aspect about global development particularly attracted Chelsea, despite her lack of prior knowledge.
Feed the Future
Chelsea accepted the placement in the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security to work on Feed the Future, a USAID initiative that tackles hunger via global partnership to improve agricultural production and nutrition. Chelsea’s responsibilities mainly entail the “programming” spectrum of policy work (e.g., coordinating funding, project management, etc.). A major part of the job is interacting and communicating with diverse audiences, including farmers, scientists, and the general public. She interacts with scientists from many government agencies (NIH, NSF, DOE, DOD, State, USDA, NASA) as well as attending meetings at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle and sitting in the board meeting of the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP). Besides the applied and development aspect of the work, she still gets in touch with the basic science she loves by attending the Plant and Animal Genome Meeting and the Plant Biology Meeting as well as the Society for Developmental Biology Annual Meeting, which is related to her own research field.
The unique global development work of Feed the Future provided Chelsea opportunities to visit partner countries. She has traveled to Ethiopia to visit hybrid-sorghum test fields and local farms of maize, sunflower, barley, and teff. Not only did she visit the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research and the USAID Mission, she also had the chance to be a tourist for a day. “My world view has expanded. I have learned so much, especially the experiences in international relations and science diplomacy, which I had never considered in graduate school,” said Chelsea.
The AAAS fellowship encourages fellows to continue education and develop professional expertise. Chelsea took courses on data visualization and science communication; the skills equip her in writing white papers on crop improvement, agricultural research, and COVID-19 as well as providing data visualization for the IWYP annual report. She is currently taking courses towards a graduate certificate in International Relations from Harvard.
When I think of science policy, I picture people working with the Congress to make science-related policy; this may belong to the “policy thinking” type of science policy. While Chelsea did have brief interactions with congressional staffers and attended congressional hearings (including Fiona Hill's testimony as part of the impeachment hearings), the work she described really went beyond my initial impressions of what science policy accomplishes for the national and global community.
When asked about a career after the fellowship, Chelsea said she was undecided. She really enjoys what she is doing (that’s why she has signed on for the second year), but she is still passionate about research. “It is not a one-way street from doing research to science policy. Many alumni went back to research in academia, and the fellowship experience allowed them to view their research topics with different, big-picture perspectives,” said Chelsea.
Practice science communications
I asked Chelsea about her tips on science communications. “Meet people where they are. I am more likely to have a good conversation when I understand people’s scientific background, political spectrum, and value system (such as religion); for example, the science conversations I had back home were successful because I knew them and they trusted me. Practice and use empathy. Avoid unnecessary jargons and provide clarity with illustrations,” said Chelsea. She mentioned two exercises she learned from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science workshops: first, imagine that you are a time traveler and have to explain an item (e.g., cell phone and x-ray machine) or your research to people living 300 years ago. The other exercise is to explain your research topic with the analogies of common hobbies of people. After the workshop, Chelsea listed as many hobbies as she could think of and practiced explaining her research with each analogy. She shared: “Most of them didn’t work, but some did. I have used some of the analogies in real conversations, so it is definitely worth the brainstorming.”
Fill the gap of knowledge
Even though Chelsea has successfully navigated graduate school and the science policy field, she recognizes that she experiences imposter syndrome, especially in the early stages of each new path. “I didn’t know what impact factors were or how research was funded when I first started graduate school. Everyone, including the other new graduate students in my cohort, seemed to know a lot more than I did. I felt like I didn’t understand the culture of scientific research. Eventually, I found my voice and became an expert in a subject I love, but it is easy to become overwhelmed by the discomfort of not knowing. It is important to remember that gaps in your knowledge are just areas where you can grow,” explained Chelsea.
The deadline of applying to the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow is November 1st this year (US citizenship required; check the program website for more details). If you are interested in applying, reach out to past and current fellows to hear about their experience and advice. What worked for Chelsea was she used a story-telling tone to describe herself in the personal statement. Last but not least, it is really important to highlight “what you want to get out of the fellowship” and consider “why you for the fellowship and why the fellowship for you.”
(Special thanks to Kathryn Smith and Mary Williams for their editing assistance.)
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and do not reflect the official policy or position of USAID or AAAS