Christopher Avery, Ph.D.
ACS Congressional Fellow, 2011-2012
Chris Avery earned his Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry from the University of Michigan in April 2011. His doctoral research investigated the molecular interactions between synthetic antimicrobial compounds and cellular membranes. Chris also holds a Graduate Certificate in Science, Technology and Public Policy from the Ford School of Public Policy at Michigan. Prior to his ACS fellowship, Chris worked for the Board on Science, Technology and Economic Policy at the National Academies, working on various projects related to economic policy, including patent reform, tax codes, standard setting and new energy technologies. As an ACS Congressional Fellow, Chris is Senator Christopher A. Coons (D-DE) on energy, environment and innovation issues.
Year-End Fellowship Report
It seems amazing to me that a whole year has passed and my fellowship experience is now over. This was such a unique opportunity, and I am incredibly thankful to the ACS for the chance to be here and do this job. I am also thankful to Senator Coons for bringing me onto his staff, trusting my advice, and expecting my best. His help and mentorship has been invaluable, and I appreciate the opportunity to be here.
Congress is always an interesting and exciting place to be, even in the difficult political climate we as a country find ourselves in today. Many times, I’ve been told that I worked in the “worst Congress” to date. I understand the frustration, and I know that many staffers here share it. The dysfunction and illogic are real and present dangers and I sincerely hope that something changes soon to break the logjam. But I’ve also come to appreciate that this image of a partisan Congress – one that is completely immobilized – is an overly simplistic view. It’s easy to dismiss how things on the Hill function, and importantly, why they function that way, when one hasn’t spent time here to understand it.
As the resident scientist in Senator Coons’ office, I have had a broad portfolio that crossed a large number of projects and efforts. Our office works quite a bit in teams, and I was a part of the Energy & Environment (E&E) team. The E&E team had a massive workload and I was able to jump in right away with real responsibilities, which was exactly what I wanted. I was often referred to as the Energy Fellow in this office, which was just as broad as it sounds. I could describe a large number of different experiences, but I will instead focus on just a few of my highlights.
Early on in my fellowship, Senator Coons was invited to speak at the annual ARPA-E conference as a keynote speaker. I urged him to accept the invitation because I believe him to be a great speaker and a passionate advocate for clean energy in this country. It didn’t take much convincing; he was quite excited to go. It was there that I saw the Senator for the first time reveling in what science can do for this country.
One of the penultimate experiences from this year was the introduction of a bill I worked on for nearly six months prior to introduction. In June, the Senator introduced the Master Limited Partnerships Parity Act, which would help to level the playing field in the tax code between fossil fuels and renewable energy. It’s a complicated concept and I learned a lot about the tax code when I was working on it. Most of all, I am very proud to have played a role in helping the renewable energy sector in this country. I will never forget the feeling of sitting on the floor of the Senate while Senator Coons argued in favor of his bill, knowing I played an integral role in bringing it to that point.
In retrospect, I think one of the most valuable roles I played was at the staff level. There were a huge number of issues and meetings I was pulled into because the word “chemistry” or the word “science” came up. During most of the meetings, I just listened; however every now and then, I was able to speak up and give context to help everyone understand the science underpinning the issue at hand. More than once, my insight proved to be important in figuring out what was going on and what we could – or should – do about it. But most of all, I managed to find an office where collaborations and friendships are important to ensuring we function well together. I believe that teamwork spirit, which pervades the whole office, is a huge part of how Senator Coons gathered a top-flight staff to achieve some amazing things so far.
Looking back on the experience, I think what I am most gratified by is the confirmation that you do not have to be in a lab to be a real scientist. In today’s world, science pervades everything. It is connected to almost all policy decisions facing us, such as health care, education of our youth, dealing with environmental damage and climate change, how to restart our economy, and more. As a result, it is increasingly relevant to general citizens and high-level policymakers alike. I am more confident than ever that policymakers are beginning to recognize this need. We in the scientific community need to recognize this need as well. We need to stop limiting ourselves to this worldview where scientists are only scientists when they toil away with beakers at a bench. We do ourselves, our country, and our profession a disservice when we don’t engage with the rest of the world. I am extremely proud of the ACS for their work to help move the chemistry community beyond a sole focus on academia, and I look forward to helping do just that.