Melody Burkins, Ph.D., was the 2000–2001 GSA/USGS Congressional Science Fellow and is currently the Associate Director for Programs and Research in the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding, Senior Fellow in the UArctic Institute of Arctic Policy, and Adjunct Professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth. Pronouns: she/her/hers
How would you describe your experience as a Congressional Science Fellow?
In a word: transformational. My experience as a Congressional Science Fellow transformed my understanding of what I could do, and what impact I could have, with my Ph.D. in earth sciences. The experience also transformed my career path, leading to opportunities nationally and around the world as a “boundary spanner,” connecting the worlds of science, policy, and diplomacy to advance equity, inclusion, sustainability, and peace.
What inspired you to work in both politics and geology?
For geology: I was first inspired by Professor Brian Skinner of Yale. From his introductory courses to advanced courses in metallurgy, his approach to geology always connected earth science to the arts, history, politics, and impacts on culture and society. Years later, during field work in Antarctica, my interest in politics was sparked by meeting with a delegation from the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee who, I learned quickly, had the power to support or deny funding to all future polar science research. It was that eye-opening experience that led me to apply to the USGS-GSA Congressional Science Fellowship program and begin a fascinating, rewarding career at the intersection of science, policy, and diplomacy.
What are you most proud of from your time as a Congressional Science Fellow?
I am most proud of the way I was able to bring my scientific expertise to my policy advising role in Congress, while also having the humility to realize my Ph.D. knowledge was critical, but not at all sufficient. I quickly realized the importance of expanding my understanding of policy issues with knowledge from a diversity of social, economic, cultural, and community stakeholders before giving advice on policies that could affect hundreds of thousands, even tens of millions, of people in the U.S. and around the world. In learning to do that, I was able to develop new expertise in relationship-building, creating trusted coalitions, and advancing shared goals through evidence-informed policy—skills that continue to serve, and advance, my career.
Why should people support programs like the Congressional Science Fellow?
The majority of individuals working in Congress are smart, driven, innovative, and service-focused individuals with backgrounds in political science, government, economics, law, and business. Having a cohort of smart, driven, innovative, and service-focused STEM professionals serving in the halls of our government is critical in a world that is increasingly shaped by science and technology, from IT innovations to life-saving vaccines. The work of GSA to ensure those science voices also brings a diversity of backgrounds and experience to D.C., intentionally working to dismantle centuries of systemic discrimination in both science and policy, and also helps us build a more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable nation—and world—for future generations.
What would you like to say to other people who give of their time and resources to GSA?
GSA has been shaping and informing my career since my first annual GSA conference as a young graduate student. I remember being both intimidated and energized, attending a diversity of sessions ranging from isotope geochemistry to natural resource policy. GSA then supported my Congressional Science Fellowship and gave me my first platforms as a speaker, and leader, on science and policy to develop my voice and ideas. As my career progressed, that support and experience resulted in a call from the U.S. National Academies to join a committee devoted to advancing excellence in geoscience and diplomacy around the world, the U.S. National Committee for the International Union of Geological Sciences (USNC-GS). Fourteen years later, I Chair the National Academies’ Board on International Scientific Organizations and am active internationally on issues of science, policy, and diplomacy in the Arctic and around the world, focusing on inclusion and equity. GSA has given me—and countless others—the opportunity to pursue a diversity of impactful careers in academe, government, NGOs, and the private sector. I hope everyone will continue to give and support the work of such an incredible organization.
Photo attribution: Dartmouth photographer Eli S. Burakian.