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Kirstin Matthews, PhD

Mar 4, 2020

Hometown: Havre de Grace, Maryland, USA
Current residence: Houston, Texas, USA
Graduate degree: Ph.D., The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
Current position: Fellow in Science and Technology Policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy

What interested you in the Lawrence Goldstein Science Policy Fellowship Program?

Science policy is a collaborative endeavor. You need a strong understanding of the current research to make thoughtful and actionable recommendations for policy. The Goldstein Fellowship offered the opportunity to work with top scientists at the ISSCR that engage and shape public policy and to learn from their experiences and perspectives.

How do you hope to benefit from the policy fellowship program?

To engage in direct advocacy and promotion of scientific research to policymakers and to develop close work relationships with scientists and other scholars in the field to more effectively influence policy development.

What is the current focus of your policy research, and what do you find most rewarding about your work?

My research focus centers on understanding how policymakers use scientific advice and finding ways to improve scientists' voices in the policymaking process. My recent work has focused on human embryo and embryoid research and the ethical and policy challenges they create. I also do research on science advice in the U.S. federal government including the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the President's Council of Advisors in Science and Technology (PCAST).

Do you have research interests outside of the policy arena?

In addition to policy, I am broadly interested in the social factors that impact scientists’ work such as religion, ethics, and family. These factors can influence job choices, research topics, and how scientists work with others, including students. They can also affect the ability of organizations to attract and retain top scientists.

What led you to become involved with science policy?

During graduate school, I worked in a lab using embryonic stem cells while the public debate was ongoing regarding whether the U.S. should fund the research. The amount of misinformation circulating was immense. It highlighted how science is treated, mistreated, and how misinformation can affect public perception and policy. I started working at the Baker Institute for Public Policy to help bring together scientists with policymakers and encourage scientific advice for policymakers. While not all policy issues are decided because of science, accurate science should be a part of the decision-making process.

What is the most exciting aspect of your work?

At the Baker Institute, we have an excellent staff which allows us to host lectures and events. I enjoy bringing in scientists and policymakers whose work I have followed and giving them a chance to talk with the public. These events have helped students meet high-profile scientists, create new collaborations, and encourage future scientists to understand the societal impact of the research.

What guidance would you share in talking with trainees interested in pursuing science policy?

One of the key skills in science policy is communication. I always recommend anyone interested in policy to work on presenting their work to a general nonscientific audience. One of the best avenues is school outreach. Explaining your work to middle or high school kids pushes you to determine what the most important aspects are. You also need to describe why they should care or how it relates to their world. These skills are the same you should use when approaching a policymaker.

Do you have any mentors or individuals who have inspired you in your policy work?

Dr. Neal Lane, former NSF director and presidential science advisor, hired me at the Baker Institute and has shown me how to navigate science policy and politics including introducing me to key players and organizations. His philosophy is to surround yourself with smart people and then listen to them. Ms. Amy Myer Jaffe (an energy policy expert) encouraged me at the beginning of my career to stand up for myself, to take credit for my work, and to push myself outside of my comfort zone. I also admire Tim Caulfield. He has moved beyond a traditional academic career by engaging the public in science and health communication. He's extremely busy, but still willing to collaborate on projects he's passionate about.

How do you spend your free time?

I’m a homebody. I love to read, spend time with my family, and binge-watch baking shows.

What is something your peers would be surprised to learn about you?

My maternal and paternal grandparents were farmers in rural Kansas. I also have uncles and cousins in Kansas who are farmers or work in associated industries. When we have family reunions, I like to get their perspectives on genetically-modified crops, quality of life in rural towns, and politics as it applies to their lives. While much of what they are concerned about is the same, their needs and priorities are significantly different from those of people living in urban settings.

What do you most value about your membership and involvement with the ISSCR?

I enjoy attending the annual conferences. The sessions highlight emerging research and help keep me up to date on the science. The conference has also allowed me to engage with top scientists as well as policy scholars and ethicists from around the world—several of whom I have developed successful collaborations with.

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