Published December 18, 2019
By Megan Schumann
Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation supports initiative that provides scientific expertise to issues ranging from maternal health to climate change resiliency
When Shin-Yi Lin gave birth to her eldest child in a New Jersey hospital eight years ago, she experienced difficulties New Jersey’s mothers can face in getting appropriate maternity care – a doctor who made a racist comment during her labor, a rush towards a Cesarean birth, and uneven breastfeeding support. She used her skills as a researcher to learn how to be a better advocate for herself during her two later pregnancies.
In January, Lin, a biologist, was searching for more formal avenues to pursue her passion for science in the public service. After applying and being accepted to the Rutgers Eagleton Science and Politics Fellowship program, she was placed at the New Jersey Department of Human Services to work on health care policy for NJ Family Care, the state’s Medicaid program, in August. She calls it “the perfect placement.”
Lin is using her scientific background to help implement recently passed legislation to improve maternal health outcomes, such as working to put New Jersey among the first handful of states to cover doula services under Medicaid. Research has shown that doulas may improve many birth outcomes, but doula support has often been accessible only to those who can afford to pay privately.
“As a scientist who cares about doing work for the common good, I knew I was in a unique position as both a researcher and a mother to do more for my community,” the West Windsor resident said.
Lin is among four scientists appointed to full-time positions in the New Jersey Departments of Human Services, Health, Transportation and the Legislature earlier this year. The year-long fellowship is part of Rutgers’ Eagleton Science and Politics Initiative. The fellows were selected from a pool of candidates with Ph.D. or equivalent degrees in the sciences for their interest in bringing scientific expertise to politics and government.
“The Eagleton Science and Politics Initiative addresses the need for scientists, elected officials, and policymakers to work together to better inform public policy. The Eagleton Science and Politics Fellowship puts that concept to work by giving scientists the opportunity to serve one year appointments as science aides in state government,” said Anna Dulencin, senior program coordinator for the Eagleton Science and Politics Initiative.
The fellows are currently serving as science advisors to agency leaders and legislators. All four have ties to the state and expressed their eagerness to improve the lives of New Jerseyans.
“It has been uniquely rewarding to know that my work is affecting my own community,” said chemical engineer Liana Vaccari, another science fellow. “While there are similar positions at the federal level, I believe I have more direct impact in this role here in New Jersey.”
Vaccari is leading a climate resiliency group at the New Jersey Department of Transportation. Her experience lends itself well to communicating how roads, bridges, and structures that the DOT maintains will be impacted by heat and other climate stressors.
Fellow Andrew McAllister, an applied physicist, is also working on climate impacts as well as other issues with the New Jersey State Legislature. He assisted on matters related to the harmful algae bloom over the summer in lakes across the state.
Research shows that New Jersey will experience major impacts from climate change much earlier than other states. The projects with which he is assisting illustrate how the Garden State is planning for what lies ahead, the Robbinsville resident explained. The ability to communicate clearly to policymakers about scientific issues like the algae bloom or sea level rises is a growing and necessary skillset, he said.
“Andrew’s evidence-based approach to policymaking is extremely helpful in developing solutions to complex problems and he has been a huge asset to our office,” said Jennifer Taylor, who works with McAllister at the Assembly Majority Office.
Science Fellow Allison McCague, a human geneticist, stressed the importance on getting things done at the state level.
“New Jersey leads the world in the number of scientists and engineers per square mile, yet much of that potential is untapped,” said McCague, who works at the Newborn Screening lab and the Office of Policy & Legislative Services at the New Jersey Department of Health. “Having scientists and engineers in government not only yields benefits within the institution, but adds another dimension to an already skilled and educated workforce, allowing us to build bridges with academia, industry and other sectors where the scientific community already has strong roots.”
McCague is excited to continue her work in the Department of Health on a variety of projects, including embryo storage regulation and charity care reform.
The science fellows will finish their appointment in July. The Eagleton Science and Politics Fellowship program has funding from the legislature for another cohort of four Science Fellows and has received a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation that will fund support for two additional fellows for the class of 2021. Applications for next year’s fellowship program are open.
Further information for applicants and for legislative and executive officials interested in hosting a fellow can be found here. Applications are due on Jan. 17, 2020.