When this year's farm bill was being drafted in the Senate, psychologist Tiffany M. Griffin, PhD, drew from her knowledge of social disparities and intergroup dynamics to evaluate how the bill's nutrition-related provisions might impact lower-income communities. In another congressional office, psychologist Valarie Molaison, PhD, weighed in on bills related to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) safety and domestic violence. These are only a few of the policy issues that Griffin and Molaison focused on during their APA congressional fellowships.
For more than 38 years, the APA Congressional Fellowship Program has offered psychologists an opportunity to work in congressional offices or as committee staff for one year. In these placements, fellows learn about federal policymaking and congressional operations and, in turn, empower legislators to utilize psychological expertise that may improve public policy.
"APA congressional fellows have participated in the development of key health and social policies, ranging from funding psychological research and training programs to improving access to quality mental health care for America's most vulnerable populations," says Diane Elmore, PhD, MPH, who co-directs the APA Congressional Fellowship Program and served as a 2004–05 APA congressional fellow.
The 2011–12 APA congressional fellows share their experiences on Capitol Hill:
In the office of Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.)
Griffin obtained her PhD in social psychology from the University of Michigan and, before moving to Washington, served as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She came to the APA fellowship with award-winning research experience in the areas of health and educational disparities and policy experience at the National Poverty Center.
"In ways that I could not have imagined, my social psychology training has been a major asset in my role as a fellow," Griffin says. In addition to preparing her to work on bills related to agriculture, welfare and the FDA, she says, her training equipped her with great negotiation skills and an ability to connect with different types of people—"an invaluable skill in the policy world, where so much of ‘success' rests on interpersonal aptitude," she says.
Griffin calls her Capitol Hill experience "nothing short of spectacular. I learned how policy works in a way that Civics 101 never could have taught," she says.
The experience also convinced her to be an advocate for integrating policy into graduate coursework. "If students and faculty had a better understanding of the impact of policy, they would be more motivated and strategic in using their research to address social problems," she says.
When her fellowship ended in August, Griffin accepted the position of monitoring and evaluation advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development, where she supports President Obama's Feed the Future Initiative, a program that seeks to address challenges facing the global food supply. Long term, she hopes to continue working on domestic and international food security and to demonstrate to others that you don't have to be a politician to appreciate the impact of policy. "I would like to create a space where I disseminate how policy works to community leaders," she says.
In the Office of Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.)
Molaison is the Jacquelin Goldman congressional fellow, a position funded by the American Psychological Foundation through a bequest by Jacquelin Goldman, PhD, to support psychologists with backgrounds in child clinical and developmental psychology.
Molaison received her doctorate in applied developmental psychology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Earlier in her career, she worked as a journalist, reporting on policymaking bodies, such as the Louisiana state legislature. As a psychologist, she has worked in pediatric psychology and private practice and developed a nonprofit family bereavement center in Delaware.
Her professional experiences helped her adapt quickly to Capitol Hill, where she found a culture defined by "constantly changing priorities, a fast pace, a demand to gather information and write succinctly, a competitive environment and a unique lexicon," she says. Molaison's background also helped her to "monitor many moving parts, create coalitions, convincingly advocate for an idea or point of view and decide how and when to discuss challenging issues," she says.
"It was a joy to work for a public servant who is ethical and transparent, advocates strongly for his constituents, and treats people with the utmost respect," Molaison says. In Tester's office, she worked on policy related to rural concerns, health and mental health, illness prevention and women's health. She was impressed by how "innovative and bold" the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is and yet was discouraged that "prevention programs and services can be difficult to move forward because Congress is not allowed to consider potential savings when calculating what a new law might cost."
Molaison currently serves as a health advisor in Sen. Sherrod Brown's (D-Ohio) office. "There is still so much for me to learn and contribute," she says. "I imagine, in the long run, I will continue to be an advocate for people, especially those who may not have the resources or lobbying power to be heard."
Nida Corry, PhD, is a senior legislative and federal affairs officer in APA's Public Interest Government Relations Office (PI-GRO) and co-director of APA's Congressional Fellowship Program. Micah Haskell-Hoehl is senior policy associate in PI-GRO.