Allison Truhlar

Sector: Research

Field: Policy

Occupation: Research Fellow

What is your earliest memory of being interested in science?

I moved to DC this January to start working with the American Geophysical Union (AGU). While packing, I found a journal from when I was six. On the page titled “Sincenince,” which I surmise is my first-grade attempt to spell “science,” I describe a “strange looking thing” I found outside that “looks like bracalea [broccoli] at the top.” I assure the reader that, “we will erten [return] tomarow with whats happening to it while its growing in our rooms with water and sun in a box.” I do believe this is my earliest documented science experiment – unfortunately I never did follow-up on the broccoli hypothesis.

Growing up, I loved learning about nature and the little critters living in it – I rescued earthworms from sidewalks, collected periwinkle snails at the Long Island Sound, and started countless failed ant farms. I expressed this interest through reading and writing as well, as my early journals indicate. In addition to documenting science experiments and natural observations, I would copy encyclopedia entries or write fictional stories about obscure animals that I found fascinating. Therefore, when I went to college, I planned to double major in English and a science discipline.

Can you explain the steps you took in your career path to end up where you are today? Please include your education.

One year into college, I dropped my English major and transferred into the Biological and Environmental Engineering (BEE) program offered by Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. I wanted to have a immediate positive impact on others, and decided English wouldn’t cut it. I looked up the research happening across the university and chose BEE for the mix of applied research options it offered across agricultural, energy, and medical engineering. I thought – here I can find a way to apply my interests for the greater good – and put writing to the side.

How is your science educational background contiguous with your career as a policy research fellow?

Nine years after transferring into BEE as an undergraduate, I graduated from the department with a PhD and started as a postdoc with the NYS Water Resources Institute. My favorite part of this position were the opportunities to communicate NYS water research to a variety of audiences. On a local level, I co-created and led a class where undergraduates gained firsthand experience of local environmental governance by attending town, county, and watershed group meetings, and gave back to the community by preparing scientific information to support the water quality improvement project decisions these groups were undertaking. At a state level, I presented information on my culvert capacity modeling research to our NYS Department of Environmental Conservation partners, who used information from the model to make funding decisions around proposed culvert replacement projects. At a national level, I helped prepare district-specific fact sheets for Congressional representatives and meet with staffers to request continued federal funding for our programs. Each new audience was a new challenge, and I loved thinking out ways to best communicate my scientific knowledge to be both useful and engaging. Plus, I was getting to stretch my writing skills again, beyond the formulaic writing required for scientific articles.

Can you give a brief overview of your job responsibilities and what your role entails on a day-to-day basis? What skills and knowledge, technical or non-technical, do you use in your work?

In my current position as a Research Fellow for the Public Affairs team at AGU, I research the ways earth and space science is essential to the everyday lives of Americans. Ultimately, this will be written up in a report advocating for robust federal science funding. My typical week consists of about 50% research, 35% meetings and preparing for meetings, and 15% tasks related to managing the report project (e.g., planning next steps, communicating with team members). My ability to learn and synthesize information quickly and to communicate this newly integrated information to colleagues with different priorities are the skills I think serve me most in this position. You don’t have to be a master of these skills when you start in a position like this, as long as you’re open to learning as you go. For example, when I prepared for my first presentation to the communication firm helping with the report, I made a bunch of graphs. My supervisor told me that these people aren’t scientists, they don’t expect to see graphs, they will just take me at my word as the subject-matter expert. I felt taken aback – how can anyone know what’s true without seeing the data behind it? But I took the feedback and learned about the “pyramid principle” of communication – start with your conclusion first, then present the main reasons supporting this conclusion, and then, only if asked, present the details. If you’re a scientist, you’ll notice that this is the exact opposite of how we’re taught to write academic papers, so learning this method felt like a revelation to me. I use it all the time now in meetings and find it especially helpful when I need to pitch ideas to my coworkers.

What do you like most about your job? What advice would you give to students or early career professionals that might make it easier for them to transition in their careers?

I love that my job at AGU allows me to blend my interests and skills in science and writing. I knew from my postdoc that I wanted to keep writing and wanted to stay involved with science, although not by directly conducting scientific research. I also came to this conclusion by completing a number of skills and values assessments, such as the free Individual Development Plan published by AAAS, and informational interviews with a variety of professionals. I would strongly recommend anyone pursuing a science PhD to take the time for these or other forms of self-reflection and career research. When I started graduate school, I thought for certain I would be a professor. When I started to question this, it was destabilizing – what would I do with my education, and for the rest of my life? Taking time to learn about what I wanted from a career helped me imagine next steps for myself, even if I didn’t, and still don’t, know exactly where I would end up.