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Love of Science Leads to a Promising Policy Career

Published on August 19, 2020

Brittany Whitley, Ph.D. will bring her background as a scientist and policy director to the inaugural class of Missouri Science and Technology Policy (MOST) Fellows this fall. “Science and policy are so intertwined that you can't really be a scientist without thinking about the ways that your science affects policy,” she said. 

Building Relationships 

Her policy work with the Seattle Aquarium and the Pacific Science Center in Seattle prepared her to speak with a variety of people about complicated issues. Along with her experience with the University of Washington’s (UW) Graduate and Professional Student Senate as the policy director. The position taught her how to track education policy at the state level, which she feels has prepared her for the fellowship since her focus will be on education and workforce development issues, she said.

Through her fellowship, she plans on meeting with as many lawmakers as possible to build relationships with them. “I don't see my role as trying to change people's values. It's really understanding what the lawmakers goals are and then bringing them the science in an unbiased way so that they can make the best decisions for their constituents,” she said. “People want the best education possible for their children. I want to help policymakers understand the scientific information so they can determine the best way to get there.”

She sees her role as looking into the policy landscape and asking what policies exist. For example she said, if the lawmakers want to increase graduation rates, she will analyze which of those policies seem to work and don’t work through data available. 

After she completes her MOST Fellowship, she is interested in continuing to help people by having a career in science policy at the state level and be in a position where she can help decision makers make decisions using science.

Falling in Love with Science

“Science is a mystery or a scavenger hunt where you get these little clues and you try to put them together to solve, she said. “I've always really liked that. It's like a big puzzle.” 

She tries to think of creative answers to important questions and think of them in ways that nobody has thought of addressing the problem before, then testing them. “There's a question, here's a disease. How do we solve it?” 

As an undergraduate student at Bucknell University she was able to combine biology and neuroscience. In the lab, she used chickens as a model system to study how chronic or repeated stress in birds - and possibly humans - affects the stress response later in life. She also studied language development in babies, which included recruiting parents to bring their children into the lab to test their developing aspects of language. Due to these lab experiences, Whitley decided to change her degree concentration to neuroscience and then eventually the molecular and cellular biology field. She graduated with a bachelor’s of Neuroscience.

She went on to study at UW and earn a doctorate in cell/cellular and molecular biology last year along with a certificate in public policy and management. The certificate program helped her “take my mind out of this scientist bubble,” she said. Before the public policy classes, she believed that the data - and the scientists who explained it - had all the answers. “If scientists could just explain the information to policymakers, everything would be better,” she said, but she realized “it's a little bit more complicated,” scientists need to figure out how to work within the existing system to make things better. 

The ultimate goal of her doctoral work was to understand how fusion works mitochondria - the “powerhouses” in our cells that make most of the energy our bodies use - to better understand how to fix it when it breaks in diseases such as neurodegenerative diseases. She said her guiding philosophy is to think of science as information and research and data to help people.

Her experience continued with an opportunity to work in Maryland for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “This is the place where I can have an impact on the health in our country,” she said. During her fellowship she studied inherited deafness in humans and possible avenues for treatment. 

Dr. Whitley fell in love with molecular and cellular biology at the NIH. “I worked on things that we can't see with our eyes, we have to look under a microscope and even then, we can't see everything with a microscope. We kind of have to do these delicate and intricate experiments to figure out what's going on. That was really cool because it was like this mystery,” she said. 

“It’s like getting a little toolbox that includes a microscope and experiments to try to figure out what is going on in the brain,” she said. “I like looking at really small things and becoming an expert in a protein that most people don't think about, but is really, really important in our day to day life.” When she applied both neuroscience and molecular and cellular biology programs to her graduate work it led her to UW in Seattle and into her doctoral research. 

The UW doctoral program “relates in a lot of ways to my neuroscience training. I'm really interested in how our brain works and how it changes as we get older,” she said. It made her start asking more molecular and cellular questions which she really loved.

Recognized by Peers

Dr. Whitley said one of the highlights of her doctoral career thus far is having seven peer-reviewed papers published. The idea for one of her papers came through a collaboration with a local doctor who had a young patient experiencing developmental delays and neurodegenerative problems. Through several lab experiments, including looking directly at the patient’s cells, Whitley was able to verify that a mutation in the child’s deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) seemed to prevent her mitochondria from dividing normally.

“It was really rewarding to work on this and discover something new and then be able to share my findings with the scientific community,” she said. “Another exciting aspect was finding several other doctors around the country who had similar patients with different mutations, but all in the same gene. In the paper we were able to characterize four different mutations that affected five or six different kids and show why we thought disease was being caused in those cases. I hope this will help people in the treatment of those diseases further down the line,” she said. 

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