The 2006-2007 congressional fellows are Drs. Matthew Shepard, Susan E. Walch, Joel Szkrybalo and Abyssinia Washington.
When psychologists head to Capitol Hill as APA congressional fellows, the exchange goes two ways:Psychologists can learn how to put their expertise to use in the federal policy-making process. And policy-makers can set priorities and make decisions informed by psychological science.
That dual purpose lies at the heart of APA's fellowship program, part of the Science and Technology Policy Fellowship program run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. APA selects and sponsors psychologists who are interested in policy issues, eager to use psychological knowledge to help solve societal problems and able to cooperate with colleagues representing a range of viewpoints. Following an intensive orientation in September, fellows spend a year as special legislative assistants working with a senator, representative or congressional committee. This year's congressional fellows are working to address the mental health needs of children, hasten the development of anti-HIV microbicides and cut the number of school drop-outs.
Such activities help bring the insights of psychology to policy-making, says Annie Toro, JD, associate executive director for public interest government relations. But the benefits don't end there, she notes.
"This program provides psychologists with a unique and invaluable experience in public policy," Toro says.
Abyssinia Washington, PsyD
Office of Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.)
Her background: Crayons, dollhouses and anatomically correct dolls are part of Washington's everyday life working with child abuse and homicide cases at Safe Shores, the D.C. Children's Advocacy Center where she has worked for about five years.
"I call myself a 'dirty boots' scientist, working on the ground level with people in crisis," explains Washington, who treats young victims and works with the police, courts and others in prosecutions. She earned her doctorate in clinical psychology from George Washington University in 2001.
Her Hill experience: "I gravitated toward the energy of the House more than the Senate," says Washington, explaining why she chose Rep.Kennedy's office. "And this office has a significant commitment to working on mental health issues."
In addition to working with staff on mental health parity legislation,Washington has been helping to draft additional bills that affect the nation's mental health care system. Among them is the Child Health Care Crisis Relief Act of 2007, which would offer scholarships and loan-repayment grants to attract more clinicians to the child mental health field. Washington is also working on the Positive Aging Act, whichwould increase the number of clinicians and community-based sites prepared to address older adults' mental health needs.
Her next step: Once her fellowship is over, Washington will head back to Safe Shores. "I miss working with children," she says. She's already convinced the fellowship will make her a better clinician and advocate for children. "You can only do interventions for so long before you realize that we need laws and public policy to support those interventions," she said. "We have to be an active participant in the legislative process."
Matthew Shepherd, PhD
Office of Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.)
His background: For the last decade, Shepherd has devoted his career to helping legislators, state agencies and private organizations make informed decisions. At the Kansas Health Institute, for example, Shepherd and his colleagues conducted research, analyzed policy and helped legislators understand the complex interplay of factors affecting Kansans' health. In his most recent position, Shepherd worked at the Self-Help Network Center for Community Support and Research at Witchita State University, helping to build the consumer mental health movement. Shepherd got his PhD in community and clinical psychology from Witchita State in 1999.
His Hill experience: Shepherd considers himself "blessed" to have landed in the office of Sen. Smith, who has what Shepherd calls a "strong respect for and involvement in mental health issues." Although Shepherd has been working hard on Head Start's reauthorization, he's trying not to limit himself to any one issue. Instead, he says, "I'm more concerned with learning the process and trying to do everything once." He has prepared congressional testimony, attended hearings and briefings and responded to constituents, for example. He has even drafted his own bill that would create the Heroes Helping Heroes Program, which seeks to create a peer-support network for veterans returning from Iraq andAfghanistan.
His next step: Although Shepherd admits he has been "bitten by the policy bug," he's not sure what comes next. He is exploring options in the federal government, foundations and even APA.
Susan E. Walch, PhD
Office of Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.)
Her background: Back home in Pensacola, Walch is an associate professor of psychology at the University of West Florida. She earned a PhD in clinical psychology in 1995 from the Medical College of Pennsylvania/Hahnemann University, but now focuses on health psychology. Drawing on her research interest in HIV/AIDS, she is also a grassroots activist. Her advocacy centers on the Ryan White CARE (Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency) Act of 1990, which provides funding to care for low-income uninsured or underinsured people with HIV/AIDS. For example, she chaired a consortium that helped decide how Ryan White Care Act funding would be distributed in the Florida panhandle.
Her Hill experience: Now Walch is working on the Microbicide Development Act, which would coordinate federal anti-HIV microbicide research in hopes of speeding an effective microbicide's development. Walch is also working on two additional health policy priorities: reauthorizing the State Children's Health Insurance Program and fixing new Medicaid regulations that require documentation of citizenship. "A lot of eligible people are dropping off the Medicaid rolls because documentation represents such a burden," she explains. "We're trying to fix that problem."
Her next step: Once her fellowship is over, Walch will head back to her teaching job. "I'm hoping I'll be able to teach about the intersection between science and policy," she says. "And I'm hoping to use the organizing and leadership skills I'm working on here to help my grassroots advocacy work."
Joel Szkrybalo, PhD
Office of Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.)
His background: For five years, Szkrybalo was a private practitioner specializing in children and adolescents in Princeton, N.J. "Many of my clients were struggling academically," says Szkrybalo, who went into classrooms to observe his clients, advocated on their behalf at schools and worked with teachers to develop behavioral interventions. He earned a PhD in psychology from New York University in 1998.
His Hill experience: Now Szkrybalo has moved from providing individual interventions to working on policies that could affect every child in the country. With reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act ongoing, Szkrybalo has been helping the senator's staff tackle particular parts of the law. For instance, because New Mexico's schools have a large percentage of students who are English-language learners, Szkrybalo is looking at how the law assesses such students. He and his colleagues are also trying to provide the professional development teachers need to be as effective as possible. And the senator recently introduced a bill called the Graduation Promise Act, which hopes to reduce the number of students who drop out of school.
His next step: Future possibilities for Szkrybalo include another position on the Hill, a job at an education think tank, or work in the military medical system or VA helping address the mental health needs of returning service men and women. But wherever he ends up, says Szkrybalo, "I'd like to stay involved in influencing policy and contributing to the discussion."
Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.