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Cornell University


Tuesday, January 17, 2017
BEST Careers in ...Science Policy - Rocco Casagrande talk

Rocco Casagrande, Cornell alumnus (Tim Huffaker's lab) gave a talk on science policy and its role in government on January 10, 2016. He served as a BEST mentor for Alex Coots who did a BESTernship at Gryphon Scientific in Bethesda. Their work led to recommendations on guidance released just yesterday on a review process for risky virus studies.  Use this link to view the slides of this talk.

This is what participants have to say:

"I learned more about a career topic I was interested in, and the talk encouraged me to explore science policy careers more. It also helped me to look for science policy groups that I would be more interested in working with."

"I wasn't aware of the type of work that Dr. Casagrande did, and since then I've been highly interested in trying to get into that field. He did a good job of explaining what exactly employers look for in their hires and steps we can be taking now to be prepared for the interview process."

"I honestly didn't know the jobs he described were even out there until this talk, and they sound really interesting. I knew nothing about scientific contracting for the federal government before this, and now am seriously considering this as a career." 

Some additional takeaways about jobs in the federal government

There are hundreds of solicitations every day to cover 90% of government work. A subset of these require scientific and technical expertise. Why? There are at last count about 250 labs run by the government that need staff to do the work, such as the FDA, USDA, the military, VA, etc. The executive branch needs to make decisions on technical topics without being the experts. Topics such as vaccine strategy, diffusion of fission materials, prevention of a flu outbreak, and so on. The government employs scientists as federal employees (these are getting more rare), in federally funded R&D centers (there are about 50 of these), and as contractors, both for- and non-profit, large and small.

Rocco Casagrande continued after this introduction to speak of his own career trajectory. He reminded the audience that researchers know a lot about a little, where as he really was the type to learn a little about a lot. "If you read two books on a topic, you know more than 99% of the public; if you read 10 then you can be called an expert." After writing an article in Scientific American on biodefense, he was invited to train as a UN biological weapons inspector. In 2005 he started Gryphon Scientific, after gaining experience in a medium-sized government contracting organization, so he could concentrate on what he loved best: the intersection between the military and technology.

Projects have included using scientific data and practice data from public health systems to estimate the types of injuries after major events such as an earthquake or hurricane to determine the resources needed; working with various stakeholders to set goals for technology developers to better inspect and control US ports for potential plant parasites; and to develop select agent rules for the FDA and USDA to balance the need for scientific progress with the risk of potential misuse. He most recently contributed to the announcement by the OSTP (the Office of Science & Technology Policy...if you love acronyms, then become a fed!) that the moratorium on gain-of-function studies, put in place in 2014, was lifted (just yesterday!).

Advice to current PhDs and postdocs? "Now is the time to take risks." "Become an expert in more than one topic." "Develop your writing skills, understand how science influences the world, and be willing to learn about new fields." But most of all, "Don't be afraid to fail. Most things worth doing are difficult, so try it!"

Parting words? "Be inventive, find new problems. Network-and follow up. Don't go it alone early. Do an internship." And contact him if you are interested in science policy.

This event was part of  “Navigating Your Future: BEST Careers in…” in cooperation with OISE and the Graduate School.

As a result of this visit, a colleague of Rocco Casagrande, Mark Kazmierczak, Senior Analyst at Gryphon Scientific, will be joining a panel discussion at Georgetown University in a symposium to discuss career options for PhDs.