Out of the lab: A program designed to foster real-world impact

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group photo of participants

In its fifth year, the GPS Science Policy Fellows program pushes STEM students out of their technical comfort zones, creating bridges within UC San Diego’s area of excellence

By Rachel Hommel | GPS News

Spiny lobsters, atmospheric rivers, 3D printing and extreme weather are just a few hot topics getting a policy spin.

Science is at the heart of what UC San Diego does best, but to create scientifically informed policy, it is critical to understand how the institutions themselves work, and the interplay between the two.

At the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS), some of the brightest students in STEM are getting a chance to explore the connection between science and policy, and to dive deeper to address today’s global challenges. The year-long GPS Science Policy Fellows program pairs Ph.D. students with GPS faculty in an effort to expand and enhance their expertise.

“Each year, we select up to five fellows, rousing them from their labs and guiding them through the process of seeing how their research can impact policy, and vice versa,” said Wendy Hunter Barker, GPS assistant dean and one of the program leads.  “The selected changemakers work to become effective interdisciplinary scholars, connecting with GPS faculty to engage in public policy training and gaining a multidisciplinary perspective that will not only enhance their research, but our communal knowledge base.”

Below, we interviewed two graduating fellows on their research and learned how they were able to bridge the social science gap and “lean into” the policy relevance of their work.

Kaitlyn Lowder and Kate RickeKaitlyn Lowder, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Topic: Ocean acidification and lobster fisheries

GPS Mentors: Gordon McCordKate Ricke

Ocean acidification, otherwise known as the “other” CO2 problem, is a huge concern for ocean and marine health. For Kaitlyn Lowder, she was excited to introduce a policy lens into her spiny lobster research to aid in informing fisheries and policymakers on how the spiny lobster is responding to these increasingly acidic conditions and its effect on the lobster’s mass, survival and mortality.

“Turns out lobsters are really resilient; we didn’t see any effects on survival,” laughs Lowder. “However, we need to be cognizant that they live in an ecosystem that’s constantly changing due to environmental impacts.”

Expanding her organismal biology background, her mentors Professors Gordon McCord and Kate Ricke introduced her to the fine art of bioeconomic modeling. Putting lobsters into different conditions, Lowder learned how to model data to better understand how changes in ocean acidification might have an impact on fisheries and their economic implications.

“Thinking about what modeling looks like has changed for me. It used to be this big black box before,” said Lowder. “I gained a lot more confidence in myself as a scientist by expanding outside of my own research boundaries.”

Thanks to the program, Lowder was able to successfully bridge the science-policy gap, learning to work through differences in industry terminology and jargon while enjoying the flexibility of working alongside other faculty on campus. By putting equations together, she was able to develop the necessary framework and models to formalize her research.

“The chance to be more vulnerable was very helpful,” said Lowder. “By learning more about policy implications and management strategies, I can more fully understand the landscape of lobster fisheries.”

Karcher MorrisKarcher Morris, Jacobs School of Engineering

Topic: 3-D printing of medical devices
GPS Mentors: Liz LyonsRoger Bohn

There is a lot of hype around 3D printing and it’s only going to increase from here. At the Jacobs School of Engineering, Karcher Morris hopes to offer something more quantifiable. But there are still so many unanswered questions: Who can make these devices? And how do government regulations impact the future of medical device making?

“In the field of medical devices and rapid prototyping there is a lot of action and opportunity,” said Morris. “However, it’s not just developing the device. There’s the translating it and beyond that, the commercialization. Those steps aren’t ever easy.”

Learning about the GPS Science Policy Fellows program in its infancy, Morris was excited to work alongside Professors Liz Lyons and Roger Bohn.  He had long admired Professor Bohn’s work in reviewing the hard disk drive industry, which connected well with Morris’s master’s studies. Realizing the difficulty and uncertainty of the growing field of 3D printed medical devices, he was grateful to have two mentors who are so well versed on innovation and technology.

“I enjoyed every conversation I had with my mentors during my time as a fellow. There were so many amazing topics that came up,” said Morris. “It’s been great to explore questions I normally wouldn’t be encouraged to ask. This program allows for that deep dive and to truly become a leader in your field.”

Developing solutions for medical doctors, his research dives head first into the regulatory world, looking at FDA quality control standards for approval, which divides into classes I-III. Looking at pre-market notification or 510(k) clearances for the FDA, Morris was able to analyze a whole database online, showcasing over hundreds of companies who hope to market 3D printed medical devices.

“While much of the FDA’s mission is about safety and regulation, a key part is about innovation,” said Morris. “3D printing enables innovation and the FDA cares about these new products having a positive impact on patient outcomes. This is critical for what we are working on in our engineering research lab.”

And how is the FDA doing at balancing the fine line of promoting both safety and innovation?  More research needs to be done.  For Morris, future efforts will include looking at a variety of additional policy standards and relating them back to approval times for small and large companies.

Other 2018-19 GPS Science Policy fellows not mentioned above:

Meredith Fish, Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Topic: atmospheric rivers
GPS Mentors: Kate RickeJennifer Burney

Jennifer Le, Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Topic: deep-sea ecosystems
GPS Mentors: Liz Lyons, Kate Ricke

Mike Sierks, Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Topic: hydroclimate of the American west
GPS Mentors: Kate RickeJennifer Burney

Kara Voss, Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Topic: the role of research institutions in community resilience to extreme weather events
GPS Mentors: Kate RickeJennifer Burney

The application deadline for next year’s Science Policy Fellows program is Sept. 15, 2019. For more information, including how to apply, please contact GPS Assistant Dean Wendy Hunter Barker and join the program listserv.

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