Week 10: Connecting the Dots

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Monday, August 10, 2020


Paul McKinley

I’m glad I waited a couple days after our symposium to write this. The end of the week was something of a blur, exciting and interesting to be sure, but I think I’m better able to reflect back on the summer, now that things have quieted down. Friday was busy, with our symposium kicking off the day followed by a send-off Zoom party for the Congressional interns at the House Science Committee office in the afternoon. It feels weird saying goodbye to so many people virtually, but it's been exciting to interact with individuals doing such different, but equally fascinating work throughout the summer. Similarly, one aspect of the SPS internship that I continue to appreciate is the variety of all the positions. I was amazed by the projects done by my fellow interns on topics ranging from physics history, to modeling severe storms, to journal writing and policy work. This is a special group, and although it’s disappointing we didn’t get to meet in person, I think there’s a unique type of bonding that takes place among the “pandemic cohort.” Plus, we’ve all agreed to meet at some point (maybe in Washington D.C.?) once it’s safe to do so. 

My hope is that this blog, and perhaps this post in particular, can serve as some sort of reference for future Mather interns, not least because reading through old blog posts was a valuable resource for me. It seems something of a cliché to base the final post on a quote, but there’s a line from a 2005 Steve Jobs commencement speech at Stanford that I’ve often thought about this summer:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

This line has made appearances in a variety of motivational videos and posters, so it may not be new to many people. I heard it a long time ago, and while I thought it had a nice ring to it, I didn’t turn it into some sort of life motto or really buy into its principle. I’m a planner by nature. I try to think ahead as far into the future as possible, and those who know me understand that I find uncertainty annoying and work hard to avoid it when possible. Unfortunately, uncertainty is now pervasive in all of our lives, on a global scale. To make a stretch physics analogy, it feels as though we are in a perpetual superposition, and every time we try to take a measurement, the conditions change and we’re unable to collapse the wave function into anything resembling certainty or precision. Such is the nature of a global pandemic. 

My point here is not to tell the reader what she or he already knows -- at the time of writing (summer 2020) the world is still rather upended. My point is that even in this time of stress and uncertainty, I’ve still been able to connect some dots looking back on the last ten weeks. In March, it felt like the metaphorical dots had exploded into chaos (an analogical demonstration of the 2nd law of thermodynamics if you will), especially as we drew closer to the summer and it became apparent we wouldn’t be in D.C. It’s true, our internships looked different than we expected, and I think it’s fair to be disappointed about not being able to interact with people in-person at SPS and each of our placement sites. However, one silver lining that I’ve realized over the weeks, is that there exists a heightened level of perspective to be gained working in Congress during challenging times. 

I went into this internship with a broad goal of better understanding the science-policy nexus and gaining perspective on how people in the science community impact legislation. I think I gained insight into these areas through multiple projects I worked on across our subcommittee jurisdictions, but perhaps more importantly, I feel like I gained additional perspective on the humanistic elements of science policy. To date, the House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology has held 15 briefings and 6 full committee hearings related to COVID-19, addressing issues such as vaccine and therapeutic development, viral transmission in aircraft, and environmental health equity and justice. These are scientific issues, to be sure, but they are also human issues, and I was encouraged to see both members of Congress and expert witnesses address them as such. The wheels of government turn slowly, but I feel a sense of pride in seeing the office I worked at rise to the occasion through these events, and I remain hopeful that those hearings and briefings and the legislation they inform will provide meaningful assistance to people across the country in the near and long term.

The Mather policy positions were created to expose undergraduate students to government work early in their education in order to give them the necessary tools to navigate a policy environment effectively as scientists. I feel my experience this summer delivered on that mission, albeit in a way I would not have dreamed of before March. Now, even in uncertain times, I feel confident saying COVID-19 and the fallout it has created will impact the research and policy landscape for decades to come, and it will be important for both future scientists and policy-makers alike to understand those impacts as it relates to their work and the public whom they serve. 

So, to future Mather interns who might be reading this, I encourage you to be comfortable with uncertainty by trusting your own adaptability under such conditions. I truly don’t know what the world will be like in a year. I hope things have improved and you’re able to go to D.C. However, even if you’re working remotely, I promise that this can and will be a valuable experience. Whether you’re in a committee office, working for a member of Congress, or placed at a scientific agency, the circumstances of the world will shape your work, and vice versa, in more ways than one. 

Thank you again to everyone at the SPS national office and the House Science Committee for working so hard to make these summer internships possible. Thank you to my fellow interns both on the Hill and at SPS for your camaraderie, insight, and spur of the moment happy hours. This summer has, in many ways, been an unforgettable dot. I’ve learned a lot, and met so many kind and fascinating people. I can’t yet say definitively all the ways in which this summer will impact my future experiences, but I plan to stay curious, stay vigilant and continue to trust that this amazing, ten-week dot will connect with others down the road. I encourage you, the reader, to do the same.


Paul McKinley