While APA is working with the new administration and Congress on key national policy issues of importance to psychologists, including health reform, the association is also celebrating the 35th anniversary of its Congressional Fellowship Program. This unique collaboration between psychology and government began in 1974, when APA sponsored its first congressional fellow, Pamela Flattau, PhD, who worked on the Senate Subcommittee on Children and Youth, under the leadership of then-Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.).
Since then, another 106 psychologists have participated in the program. The APA Congressional Fellows have served as key members of the legislative team on congressional committees and for a diverse group of members of Congress, across political party lines, in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. In their congressional placements, the fellows have advised policymakers; written federal legislation; negotiated on key national policy issues; and forged lasting professional relationships and personal friendships.
The importance of this program lies in its mutually beneficial educational value for psychologists and policymakers. APA congressional fellows are ambassadors for the profession and help to educate decision-makers at the highest levels of government about how the science and practice of psychology can contribute to their work.
Perhaps more importantly, the fellowship provides an opportunity for scientists and practitioners to explore a world that is not typically part of a psychology career. Fellows gain a deep knowledge of the policymaking process and an appreciation for how it affects psychologists' work in research, education and clinical settings.
Following their year on Capitol Hill, about half of the fellows return to the work they pursued before the fellowship. The other half have stayed in Washington, D.C., to embark on careers in the policy arena. Some fellows have become staffers in their congressional placement offices or secured positions in other congressional offices, federal agencies, professional associations, think tanks, and policy and advocacy organizations.
This year, three APA congressional fellows are on Capitol Hill: Christa McDermott, PhD, in the office of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.); Scott Nolen, PhD, JD, in the office of Sen. Olympia Snow (R-Maine); and Mary Polce-Lynch, PhD, in the office of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
• Christa McDermott, PhD
Her background: McDermott came to Washington, D.C., from San Francisco, where she worked for a private firm and the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research on projects related to the behavioral aspects of California's energy efficiency programs and the use of plug-in hybrid vehicles. She received her doctorate in personality psychology and women's studies in 2007 from the University of Michigan.
Her Capitol Hill experience: In her congressional placement, McDermott covered a policy portfolio related to her background in energy and the environment, including renewable energy, water quality, and video game console efficiency. "Working in a Senate office has opened my eyes to how government, and politics, works in the U.S. It has definitely motivated me to remain active in shaping policy," she says.
Her next steps: McDermott has secured a position next year at the Environmental Protection Agency as a Science and Technology Policy Fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, but she remains starry-eyed when it comes to Congress: "I now watch C-SPAN as if it is 'Access Hollywood.'"
• Scott Nolen, PhD, JD
His background: Before his fellowship, Nolen completed a T32 Research Fellowship at the Columbia University department of child psychiatry, working with juvenile justice agencies to develop research and policies related to suicide in juvenile justice settings. He has diverse experiences in the arenas of psychology and law and previously served as a member of APA's Committee on Children, Youth and Families.
His Capitol Hill experience: Nolen spent his year integrally involved in the health-care reform process. He's been particularly intrigued by the contrast between the policy and academic arenas. "After experiencing the type of research training that you receive in a PhD program, it has been illuminating to me to work in a setting where that research gets distilled into statutory language to meet a public policy need," he says.
His next steps: Nolen plans to continue to pursue his interests in the areas of juvenile justice and the provision of educational and mental health services in low-income communities. However, he sees a lasting impact from the fellowship, reporting that it has "given me an opportunity to reinvent myself in terms of developing an entirely new skill set that I can take with me back to academia or into the world of policy advocacy."
• Mary Polce-Lynch, PhD
Her background: Prior to her selection as an APA Congressional Fellow, Polce-Lynch held a joint appointment as visiting assistant professor of psychology and associate director of counseling services at Randolph-Macon College. Her career interests have focused on biological and psychosocial factors that influence human development across the lifespan, including research on gender, emotional development and grieving.
Her Capitol Hill experience: The portfolio that Polce-Lynch covered on behalf of Sen. Wyden included health care, prevention issues and end-of-life care. "Studying the intersection of science and public policy in Congress has given me the opportunity to re-conceptualize health-care problems and solutions—and to better communicate both with various constituencies and stakeholders," she says.
Her next steps: Polce-Lynch plans to return to Randolph-Macon, albeit with a changed outlook. "The 60,000-foot high view in Congress has provided me with a perspective that will impact every aspect of my future work as a psychologist," she says. Her plans include developing coursework related to policy issues and exploring behavioral medicine.
Learn more at APA Congressional Fellowship Program, or visit us at the APA Congressional Fellowship Booth (Number 215) at the 2009 APA Annual Convention in the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
Diane L. Elmore, PhD, MPH, directs APA's Congressional Fellowship Program and is a senior legislative and federal affairs officer in APA's Public Interest Government Relations Office. Micah Haskell-Hoehl is the APA Congressional Fellowship Program administrator and a policy associate in the Public Interest Government Relations Office.