David Bernstein, Ph.D.
ACS Congressional Fellow, 2005-2006
Mid-Year Fellowship Report, April 2006
The first five months in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee office have been very exciting and busy. I have been focusing on issue areas including avian flu preparedness, bioterrorism bill reauthorization, NIH programs and budget, vaccine and drug production, stem cells and mold. Much of my time is spent meeting with industry or advocacy groups, attending staff briefings, creating briefing materials for events, hearings and floor debates, and overseeing executive agency functions.
Some of the highlights of the fellowship have been seeing the Senator using my briefing materi-als in floor debates and participating in staff-level discussions about pending legislation. More personally, I have enjoyed going to the Senator’s house for his birthday, going to the Senate floor to assist in speeches, and riding the Senate subway train.
The operation of the office is less formal than most, I suspect. Although the Staff Director is clearly in charge, there is a definite lack of hierarchy. This means that I don’t really have one mentor or supervisor. I work with the Staff Director on some issues, the Deputy Staff Director on others, and other members of the office on yet other issues. Recently, I have been working with people in the Senator’s personal office on distinct, yet related issues.
That said I will focus on my Staff Director, as he does the hiring and firing. He is generally ac-cessible, though is very busy. He makes an effort to address my concerns, and is very receptive to suggestions. We have had one formal staff meeting since I joined and I have not had a one-on-one meeting with him since my initial interview, but I can pop my head in the door and chat if things are slow. He is also hyper-responsive to email messages. I have not felt the need for a formal sit-down, but I’m sure he would take the time if I asked. We attend meetings together about once a week and have been to the Senate floor together a number of times. Other members of the office are very accessible and I have received a lot of direction and feedback from them. I feel as though I have learned a great deal from my Staff Director and the other office staff through direct interaction and through comments on my written work.
The office is very dependent on fellows. We have three staffers, six fellows and two detailees. In addition to being the main workforce, it is extremely helpful to have PhD level fellows in the office. Frequently, constituents and advocates are impressed to meet with a highly educated staff member and my experience with biochemical research often means that we can jump ahead to the details of a project or to the actual request.
Most of the challenges I have faced in transitioning from academia to the Hill have fallen in the “getting up to speed” category. I have had to become an “expert” on a wide variety of health-related issues in a short period of time. I have also had to learn about speechwriting, memo writ-ing and what sort of materials to include in briefing books. One of the biggest adjustments was understanding how much information is necessary and how much is too much. Five months in and I’m starting to dread documents over one page or without bullets.
The most difficult challenge was learning how to deal with constituents that you either cannot help or don’t want to help. The most difficult meetings I have had have been with people I agree with but the Senator does not, or with people suffering from a disease we can do nothing about. Also difficult is dealing with constituents who neither you nor the Senator agree with. Some practice at dealing with these sorts of situations during orientation would have been helpful.
Fortunately, these meetings are relatively few and I have been very much enjoying my fellow-ship year.
Dr. David Bernstein received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin Madison in 2004. His graduate work centered on the analysis of RNA binding proteins and their control of germline stem skills. Prior to his fellowship, Dr. Bernstein interned with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Division of Forestry where he assisted with the Governor’s Conference on Forestry bringing together more than 250 leaders from the forestry, land-use, conservation, and environ-mental communities to develop an implementation plan for a recently published Wisconsin Statewide Forest Plan. For his fellowship David placed with the minority staff of the Senate Committee on Health, Eduication, Labor and Pensions where he worked on issues related to NIH, stem cell research, and related topics. After his fellowship, David became a Senior Science Policy Analyst in the Office of Legislative & Government Affairs at the American Association for Cancer Research.