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Dr. Wilkins Goes to Washington

Thursday, September 7, 2017 - 12:26

Forgive the exceedingly earnest title, but I actually did watch the referenced movie (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) the night before my first day joining the staff of the AAS as the seventh John N. Bahcall Public Policy Fellow. Because I am a scientist, I can apply the “two points make a line” formalism and declare it a tradition for my first-day-of-work-in-DC-eve, as this is my second round: I also watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington the night before I started my term as a House of Representatives Page at age sixteen. Working on the House floor and going to school in the Library of Congress cemented my deep-seated love for the Capitol complex and walking the streets of the District in a blazer. Lucky for me, I get to combine those with my passion for astronomy in my new position here at the AAS.

As a graduate student, I never had to “come out” as pursuing a not-purely-academic career path. I knew from the start of graduate school that a faculty position at a research institution was not the career for me, though I was not completely certain what I did want instead. My graduate department and advisor have always been supportive of students pursuing careers and lives post-graduate school that were not just mirror copies of faculty experiences, but rather in line with the students’ interests and skills, which I realize now was a privilege. In fact, my advisor, Professor Drake Deming, also advised the very first Bahcall Fellow, Dr. Jeremy Richardson.

Just a few weeks ago, I defended my dissertation on the atmospheres of transiting giant exoplanets at the University of Maryland (UMD) Department of Astronomy. As you might imagine, I did more than just painstakingly extract small signals from resistant Hubble Space Telescope data with my time at UMD (though there was plenty of that); I also pursued a range of interests and initiatives that ultimately centered around shaping and investing in the community around me, at the department, university, and discipline levels. I had already gotten a taste of the work of determining how science gets done — mission development, big-picture science questions, proposal writing and evaluating, etc. — in two summers interning at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), and continued dipping my toe in via experiences like a project at NASA Goddard, the JPL Planetary Science Summer School, and serving as an Executive Secretary for two review NASA panels. Determining who gets to do science, though, is another layer in the pursuit of basic research, and I made that a focal point of my graduate education. In my department, I was involved in our graduate admissions process, and, in my third year, I helped found, later lead, and then advised the GRAD-MAP program, a UMD physics and astronomy diversity initiative to connect students and faculty at UMD with minority-serving institutions in the mid-Atlantic region. In my fifth year, I was elected to serve as the Vice President for Academic Affairs of UMD’s Graduate Student Government, where I served on or ran committees at various levels within university administration. Through all of this, I am certain at least that playing an active role in enabling excellence and opportunity in astronomy must be a central mission to my next steps, which brought me to science policy.

So, no, I do not actually fancy myself a 2017 Jefferson Smith, filibustering the Senate in the name of justice, honesty, and advocacy for the little guy. Instead, I think I look more toward Clarissa Saunders for inspiration, as I attempt to support the AAS membership in its efforts to navigate the complex political system in Washington to advocate for astronomy. Like Saunders, I approach the system with perhaps a bit of cynicism rooted in experience, but maintain a deep faith that advocacy, standing up to power, and speaking out when it matters works. She gives Mr. Smith the tools, the knowledge, and the support to do what is right, and what is necessary. In my own way, I hope to be a similar resource to all AAS members wishing to advocate for our discipline.

Ashlee N. Wilkins
John N. Bahcall Public Policy Fellow
American Astronomical Society (AAS)
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