Graduate student Victoria Nneji has been trained in the universal nature of the scientific method; but, during a recent visit to Washington, D.C., the first-year Masters of Engineering Management candidate learned another universal truth: all politics is local.
Nneji gained insight into this widely-held adage firsthand when she visited the nation’s capital earlier this month as one of two Duke students participating in the CASE Workship – Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering. The program, hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), aims to teach graduate students in STEM fields about the science and engineering policymaking that takes place across the federal government.
After meetings with White House officials, mock appropriations negotiations, and some lasting advice from seasoned lobbyists, the students were given the ultimate exam: meeting with Members of Congress to make the case for investments in research.
How did it go? To learn more about the trip – and about Victoria herself – Duke in Washington went straight to the source:
Name: Victoria Chibuogu Nneji
Program: First-year candidate, Master of Engineering Management
Undergraduate Degree: Columbia University – School of Engineering; B.S. in Applied Mathematics, minor in Entrepreneurship & Innovation
Hometown: Durham, NC
DIW: Tell us about your research – what are you focusing on?
VN: My research explores how to better design technology to meet how different people understand information so we achieve our full potential in performance when working with digital machines and other people. This summer, I’ll be at Stanford University working on the design, implementation, and evaluation of robots that encourage social, emotional, and cognitive growth in children, including those with developmental deficits. When I return to Duke in the fall, I will be conducting computational research on human-robot interaction in Dr. Missy Cummings’ Humans & Autonomy Lab.
DIW: Why did you choose Duke?:
VN: I am blessed to be back home after growing so much in my four years away in New York City. People at Duke are passionate, innovative, and… nice! We have a strong alumni base that contributes to the resources available for students like me to pursue great ideas and there is also a beautiful campus spirit where we all feel part of the winning team.
DIW: What were the biggest differences between Washington and academia that you discovered? Any similarities?
VN: As many speakers on the Hill reiterated, “all politics is local.” I would say that this may be a key differentiating factor with academic research– the goal of consistently using the scientific method is to prove that a phenomenon we discover in one lab can be repeated in another lab, anywhere in the world.
However, as I have been learning in my Engineering Management curriculum, there is no exact science with one human globally, each human has a unique set of needs and desires. So, we can learn something from the long tradition of both spheres about order and adaptability.
DIW: Did you learn anything new or surprising during your meetings with Congressional and executive
agency staff members?
VN: Our team from UNC and Duke had the opportunity to meet the Senior Legislative Assistant to Congressman David Price. Having lived in Price’s district for many years before college, I was pleasantly surprised that he is a major advocate not just for the meaningful K-12 STEM education legislation that impacted me early on, but also very much invested in moving our nation forward with university research funding. Before becoming a Representative, he was an academic and taught here at Duke!
An unfortunate surprise was that there are unrelated things and at times, unreasonable causes, that are holding back the budget for scientific research in our nation from growing to meet our future requirements.
DIW: What do you hope Congressional aides learned from their meetings with you?
VN: I hope that our Representatives were reinvigorated for the good cause we represent as academics, researchers, scientists. I first learned about computational science when I was 11-years-old because of a National Science Foundation-funded program, and that experience made me want to pursue a career of creative thinking and thoughtful creation — something our nation critically needs today and tomorrow. I applaud the hard work of our government leaders, but I also encourage them to continue supporting the needs of our classrooms and laboratories, so that stories like mine can proliferate.
DIW: Will your trip impact your own research or career path?
VN: This trip inspired me to consider myself a true advocate for wise engineering policy. I am just starting out in my career, and I want to contribute to research of advanced technologies that can change what society considers to be possible in different realms of our lives, from education to transportation. My voice and actions in my time as a Duke student matter for the decisions that will be made on how to manage this [technological] growth for our nation’s future and global opportunity.
DIW: Given your experience, do you have any advice for your fellow graduate students who are considering engaging in policy?
VN: You can start right at home. Anywhere you live or work in the United States, there are local and federal representatives who are there to serve you, the public. So, consider what matters to you and your community, use your graduate research skills to discover what your officials are up to in that area, and take up courage to speak with those that represent you in policymaking. We should push past barriers and fears that hold us back from sharing our talents and fully contributing to the betterment of society through our vocation.
Duke and UNC graduate students meet with James Hunter, senior legislative assistant to Rep. David Price, to discuss their research and the importance of federal investments in science. L-R: David Winski (Duke), Ross Beattie (UNC), Leah Heist (UNC), James Hunter, Victoria Nneji (Duke).