Policy Pursuits Take Two Amgen Scholars Beyond the Lab

Dec 6, 2017 12:00 PM ET

When Cameron Clarke was first assigned a policy brief as an Amgen Scholar at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2016, it was the start of something big: a career in public health policy. In the year that followed, he would use the policy brief writing skills again and again as an intern on Capitol Hill, and then with several local government organizations on issues ranging from opioid addiction and minority health inequities to environmental policy. Now a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Clarke’s work focuses on systematically reviewing research to translate the results into policy recommendations.

Translating scientific knowledge into public health policy is a “complex reality,” says Sofia Carozza, a 2017 Amgen Scholar at NIH whose area of interest is neuroscience. “It's clear that disease research is conducted with the goal of developing treatments and vaccines, but I think that all neuroscience research can – and should – be carried out for the benefit of our society,” she explains. “What we learn about the brain has tremendous implications for the areas of education, criminal justice, health care, urban poverty, and more.”

The NIH Amgen Scholars Program has a twofold mission: both to expose students to cutting-edge biomedical research in a lab and to explore how to pursue and utilize scientific knowledge for social good. Throughout the summer, students learn about the policy implications of scientific research, through a visit to Amgen to learn about advocating for biotechnology issues, roundtable discussions, and a policy brief writing assignment.

The policy brief gives Amgen Scholars the opportunity to write a proposal to a stakeholder in a position to make policy changes for solving a public health challenge. “You have to frame a policy solution in a way that is attractive and accessible to the stakeholder, so it really gives you a translational element,” Clarke says.

Clarke’s proposal was to reduce infant mortality in the District of Columbia, and Carozza’s was to address the mental health crisis in the American juvenile justice system. Both briefs spoke to the students’ deep interests in these policy areas that have persisted past their Amgen Scholars experience.

Redefining public health based on evidence

Clarke’s interest in science began in high school in New Jersey, when a biology teacher first encouraged him to pursue it. At the time, he thought becoming a physician would be a good fit, as he was not yet aware of any other careers in the biological sciences.

When Clarke started at Howard University in 2013, he quickly became immersed in health education, working with D.C. area high school students on a curriculum of nutrition, drugs, and sexual health. “That work crystallized why medicine was so important to me,” he says. “I was seeing I was having an impact but couldn’t explain it through a rigorous assessment, and that piqued my interest in being able to explain the impact through a quantitative lens.”

It all really clicked for Clarke at NIH, getting his first practical experience in both designing research in a lab and evaluating other research studies. “Those experiences made me want to shift my focus away from actually doing research and into doing policy analysis,” Clarke says.

From NIH, Clarke would head to Capitol Hill, first interning with the House Science Committee and then in the office of Sen. Cory Booker (D – NJ), on issues including education, civil rights, and health. Working on the Hill was like doing the policy brief on the fast track. Instead having months to work on the brief, he only had hours.

The next summer, he worked as a health equity fellow for the Baltimore City Health Department, where he again ended up doing same policy brief work he did at NIH and then in Congress. Those skills continue to help Clarke in his Rhodes fellowship at Oxford, evaluating public health interventions to see how they apply to policy decisions.

Clarke’s advice to other Amgen Scholars is to seek out programs that interest them, regardless of the clinical or community service hours they may receive. “If I saw something that interested me, I’d apply for it, so I haven’t exactly followed a traditional trajectory. Whatever the experience is, if you show up excited, it reflects in what you get out of the program and how you carry it forward into your career.”

Putting brain science to work in the justice system

Sofia Carozza’s path has also been anything but traditional. A double major in neuroscience and theology, with an interdisciplinary minor in philosophy, politics, and economics at the University of Notre Dame, Carozza is deeply passionate about the intersection of neuroscience with the humanities. “The study of the brain helps you understand the human person, and has important implications for everything from our daily habits to how we approach social justice,” she says.

The summer after her freshman year, she traveled to Asuncion, Paraguay, tutoring underprivileged children with psychiatric and developmental conditions. Collaborating with psychiatrists from the Paraguayan Ministry of Health, she worked on a comprehensive treatment plan for the children suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. “In my relationships with the children, I learned the incredible importance of healthy early neurodevelopment, and the positive impact of interventions that increase children's literacy, mental health, and resilience,” she says.

Her passion in this area deepened upon returning to the United States, and she began working on  a research project at a local juvenile detention facility that aimed to reduce recidivism by teaching emotional regulation strategies to incarcerated youth. Since then, she has been working on a number of programs related to research on trauma and development, including in her hometown of South Bend.

At NIH, she learned critical skills to help further her work in these areas. “The policy brief exercise helped me understand the challenges, but also the promise, of informing policy with rigorous science,” she explains. “I think that every scientist should, at some point, write a policy brief; it shows you the broad-reaching implications of scientific work beyond the laboratory, and it helps you understand your responsibility to use research for the good of others.”

She also learned from the Amgen Scholars Program what it's like to conduct neuroscience research, she says. “Although it can be tedious at times, it's fascinating and worth every single hour in the lab. I also learned that I can utilize my research and studies to ‘turn discovery into health’ in many ways, and that I will have incredible collaborators along the way.”

Carozza hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience after graduating from Notre Dame. She plans to use her research to inform and advocate for changes in the educational system. “I also hope to create a network of neuroscientists dedicated to using their research – on addiction, learning, development, mental health, etc. – for positive social change, in collaboration with organizations dedicated to social justice.”

To learn more about the Amgen Scholars Program, please visit AmgenScholars.com and check out the #AmgenScholars hashtag on Twitter. Follow @AmgenFoundation to stay up to date with all STEM-related news from the Amgen Foundation.