ASBMB’s Advocate Spotlight will highlight the efforts of science advocates to share the importance of biomedical research. If you know someone telling the story of science to legislators to advance science policy, firstname.lastname@example.org, so that we can consider them.
Melanie Alvarado is a graduate student at the University of Alaska Anchorage and studies HIV reactivation within cells that are hidden from a patient’s immune system.
How did you become interested in advocating for science?
I became interested in advocating for science after discussing and observing the ongoing funding issues occurring at my home university, University of Alaska Anchorage. I wasn’t sure how to start advocating for funding in the [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] field until I spoke to a professor at UAA who previously attended the ASBMB Hill Day, Dr. Jason Burkhead. Hill Day was a great opportunity to meet lawmakers and experience science advocacy. I explained how federal funding is facilitating my current research, and what an increase in funding could do for my community by creating jobs and inspiring young individuals to try laboratory research for the first time.
Was there a particularly memorable experience you had advocating for science on Hill Day or afterward?
Yes! I loved the whole Hill Day, but my favorite experience was when I met U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska. He attended the last few minutes of my meeting with a member of his staff and asked how my master’s project was going. I replied, “It would be better with an increase in funding,” at which the room broke into laughter. After this, we discussed my research and how funding cuts were affecting not only the recruiting of young students into the field of science, but how faculty cuts are affecting the diversity of fields scientists can be trained in at UAA.
You recently gave a talk at your university to encourage others to engage as science advocates. Tell us about that
Biology graduate and undergraduate students attended my science advocacy presentation about STEM funding at UAA. First, I described who and what the ASBMB represents. Then I used some of the visual aids developed by the ASBMB to demonstrate the drastic decrease in funding for our university. Many of my colleagues were shocked by the drastic decrease in federal funding. Furthermore, I described how there is a decrease in diversity within our university as a result of these funding cuts, which is seen directly within the biology department as well as our ever-shrinking chemistry department. I described the 21st Century Cures Act and how this would assist STEM funding as well as where it stands in the process of being passed into law. After my talk, some students asked how I found out about Hill Day and who can apply. From my Hill Day training, I was able teach them how to describe their research in 30 seconds ─ a very useful tool when speaking to individuals outside science!
Why is it important for graduate students/postdocs to engage in advocacy?
It’s important for both graduate students and postdocs to engage in advocacy because, as scientists, we are able to explain how important funding is to our research and how that funding is being applied to produce cures or new therapies with reduced side effects, improving the lives of individuals across the world living with these diseases.
How do you think advocating for science from Alaska is the same or different as doing so from other states?
I think being a science advocate from Alaska is very different from other states. A lot more funding could be applied to the University of Alaska Anchorage to increase competition with other universities in biomedical research. Being able to talk to the policymakers from Alaska and describe the negative results happening to the university due to funding cuts as well as how this is reducing the diversity of students and decreasing research interest in general was very important to me. I’m really glad the ASBMB Hill Day gave me the opportunity to present these issues to our representatives as I believe there is not enough advocacy in STEM fields for the Alaskan community.