Sunday, January 25, 2009

Miriam, What the Heck are you doing in Washington?

    A lot of people have been asking me what exactly I'm doing with my time in Washington, and so I think it's time for a blog post to answer that question.  The short answer is that I'm working at the National Academy of Sciences with the Board on Science Education as part of the Christine Mirzayan Fellowship program.  I'm guessing your next question is, "What the heck does the National Academy of Sciences do?"   
    The National Academy of Sciences is a private organization that contracts with the government to answer important questions related to science and science policy.  Whenever someone has a question that hinges on science, and this someone could be a federal agency, Congress, or sometimes a private group, the Academies will pull together experts in the fields relevant to the question, facilitate their discussion and meetings until they come to a consensus, and then issue a report.  Here are some recent famous National Academies Reports:

    Rising Above the Gathering Storm has seen a considerable amount of attention in recent weeks as it is directly related to increasing innovation and boosting the American economy using science.  The report is one of the reasons the stimulus bill in Congress now contains a large increase in funding for science and education.  Nancy Pelosi summed up how important she thinks basic research is to the economy when she described the focus of the bill as, "science, science, science, and science."
    So what am I working on?  As it turns out, all Academies proceedings are confidential except for the final reports, so I can't tell you in that much detail.  I can say that I am mainly focused on two projects: a review of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's education programs and a workshop on the use of gaming and simulations in science education.  I'll be researching and writing summaries of NOAA education programs, helping to find people for the gaming committee, and aiding in the setup of a NOAA committee meeting.
  In addition to my work on the Board, I hope to be attending congressional hearings, going to think tank seminars, and generally learning all about how science policy gets made around this town.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inauguration Fun

  To my great delight I got to be a part of several inauguration activities.  On Sunday a group of fellows and I went down to hear the concert.  We were pretty far back, near the Washington Monument, but we had a great view of a jumbotron and could see the Lincoln Memorial clearly ahead of us.  The concert was a lot of fun.  My favorite part was jumping up and down with almost a million people singing Shout.  Mary J. Blige singing Lean on Me and U2 were also stupendous.  It was really cold out, so I was extra happy whenever there was occasion to dance.

  One thing that I hadn't expected was the massive amount of people selling souvenirs.  Some of the t-shirt selections were really good, including one that said, "There's a New Sheriff in Town," and one that said, "Barack by Popular Demand."  The entire route from the Foggy Bottom Metro to the Mall was lined with vendors hawking hats, flags, buttons, calendars, shirts, scarves, and anything else you might think of with Obama's picture or name on it.  American capitalism was on full display.
  On Monday I went to a service project at RFK stadium as part of the National Day of Service with fellow fellow Jessica.  The whole event had an air of ridiculousness about it.  There were tons of people there (estimates of the whole day were 8,000), necessitating long lines and a certain amount of rationing of the volunteer work.  Hence there was a lot of build up and orientation that involved sitting in very cold stadium seats and chanting to get, "Fired Up."  The actual service involved walking through a snake-line.  First someone handed us a ziploc bag, then day long volunteers placed items in the bag as we made our way down the line.  At the end we put our bags on a table and went back to the beginning of the line.  I couldn't help but observe that we were a completely unnecessary component of the operation.  Still, it was all good fun, as people were dancing and generally having a merry time.  It's a pretty amazing feat to get 8,000 people to happily do community service, so I would say it was a success.  In the end apparently 80,000 care packages were assembled.  Our own role ended abruptly when I decided to jump into a much faster moving snake-line next to ours.  That was great and we really felt more accomplished until after two passes through we were shunted outside.  The group which we had jumped to's time was up, and we had to clear out to make room for new chanting, excited, service doers.  
  On inauguration day I woke up around 8:30, got dressed in as many layers as I could manage, and headed down to the Mall.  Luckily I don't live that far, I think it's about a mile and a half walk.  Already on P street and 15th where I live there were many people on the street.  By the time I reached 18th and K the streets were completely full of people.  


  I reached the Mall easily, wove my way up to about 12th street (which is near the Natural History Museum about 1/3 of the way down the mall from the Washington Monument).  I went by myself, but I quickly made friends with an energetic salesman from my hometown (Gaithersburg!), an older woman from Beltsville, and a group that had earlier met on the metro and included a woman who came from England just for the Inauguration.  


  We had a pretty good time waiting, considering the cold.  Most of the entertainment was provided by the fact that we were right near a news camera.  People go totally crazy when they think they might be on TV!  The actual ceremony was pretty hard to see, but it was wonderful to experience the joy and excitement of such a huge crowd.  Everyone went absolutely nuts when the swearing in was complete, and that moment alone was worth the wait.

   Escaping from the mall proved more difficult than entering it.  Three times I was trapped in large crowds surrounded by barricades.  Finally I ended up walking all the way down to D street, over to 21st, and up to get around the Mall and the parade route.  On the way I met an older couple who turned out to be from Boston.  The husband was a professor at Tufts and the wife was from the Harvard School of Public Health.  They helpfully directed me to the party I was heading to at a building just across from the White House.  There we had a tiny view of the parade and some good food.  The most exciting part by far though was that the caterers were from Top Chef!
  So that's it, my inaugural story.  It was a great weekend, filled with a whole lot of standing around and a good bit of history witnessing.  What a fabulous week to start off my time in Washington!

Monday, January 19, 2009

So I finally bit the bullet and started a blog.  After a year spent voraciously reading them, I thought it was time to contribute some words myself.  It also helps that I'm starting a new chapter of my life, spending 3 months in Washington, DC at the National Academy of Sciences.I hope this blog will be a bit travelogue, a bit political links and discussion, and a bit about life in Washington.  And wow, did I pick a good week to come to Washington!  The past few days have been simply incredible.  More on the inaugural festivities in a future post.  For now, let me just say welcome and thanks for reading!