Senior Health Policy Advisor for the United States Congress
What would you say to aspiring scientists?
“Don’t be intimidated by the prospect of a scientific career. Just follow that passion and curiosity and see where it takes you. I didn’t think it would take me to the United States Congress, but here I am!”
We’ve all heard the cliché before: A scientist huddled in their lab, hyper-focused on a 300-micrometer thick slice of an animal’s brain, seemingly detached from the role their work plays in society. While this image may hold true for some researchers, for Dr. Anita Burgos, it most certainly does not. As the current Senior Health Policy Advisor for U.S. Congresswoman Robin Kelly, Anita is deeply interested in how science can inform public policy and make change in our communities. While Anita previously spent her days dissecting fruit fly brains, she now works on Capitol Hill, informing Congresswoman Kelly’s health policy priorities.
Before starting graduate school, Anita knew she wanted to study the relationship between the brain, genes, and behavior. She had always been interested in animal behavior and how animals learn to respond to their environment, and she credits her initial interest in biology to an engaging 9th grade science teacher, who would often assign them to write rap songs about biological processes. The combination of these interests led her to Dr. Wes Grueber’s neurodevelopment lab at Columbia University, where she worked with Drosophila (fruit fly) larvae as a graduate student in the Neurobiology and Behavior program. “At the time,” she recalls, “there had been a lot of research about sensory neurons, and what they detect,” such as pain, touch, and proprioception. However, scientists didn’t know how the sensory neurons converted sensory input into a motor response. For example, imagine rapidly pulling your hand away from a hot stove. How do sensory neurons convert the pain the heat causes into a signal for the motor neurons to move your hand? Anita’s research filled this gap in knowledge. She discovered a group of interneurons called SPN1, which receive input from both pain and touch neurons, and modulate the fruit fly’s escape behavior. Specifically, she was able to map every connection in this interneuron group, with both upstream sensory neurons and downstream motor neurons.
Discovering and mapping an entirely new group of neurons was a feat on its own, but Anita felt that her work in science should extend beyond the lab. Anita “really wanted to bridge the gap between the public and scientists, and get [everyone] in a room together and interact more.” For her, communication with the general public was a key part of doing science. As a graduate student, she founded the Late Night Science program, which plans events for the general public about neuroscience research, and often concludes with an interactive lab tour. She recalls that creating and coordinating Late Night Science was one of her favorite parts about graduate school, and reinforced her commitment to not just doing good science, but communicating it with the public as well.
“I really wanted to bridge the gap between the public and scientists, and get [everyone] in a room together and interact more!”
In her fourth year of graduate school, Anita attended a three-day conference entitled “What Can You Be with a PhD?” which sought to expose graduate students to careers outside of academia. Anita found herself drawn to panels about working in Washington D.C., where panelists spoke about how they use their scientific expertise to help inform public health policy. This experience led her to the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship, which gives recent graduate students the opportunity to intern in the office of a member of congress. As a fellow, Anita received a “crash course” about how Congress works, how outside groups influence Congress, and how to draft effective policy proposals. After completing the fellowship, Anita went on to work at a D.C. think tank called the Bipartisan Policy Center, where she did research to help create policy recommendations for other organizations and members of congress. This gave her the opportunity to learn an immense amount about the intersections of health and government, on topics such as Medicaid/Medicare, workforce payment policies, and telehealth. Specifically, she led the think tank’s work on mental health and substance use disorders. As a caregiver for a family member with a mental health condition, and as someone who has seen how bad policy can lead the mental healthcare system to fail people, Anita found this work especially rewarding.
After about a year and a half, she found herself drawn back to Congress, because it felt like that was where “the action was happening.” This motivation led her to Congresswoman Robin Kelly’s office, where she started working this past May. In this role, Anita primarily works on policies related to maternal health, expanding access to healthcare, and health equity. She meets with Congresswoman Kelly’s constituents and colleagues, as well as outside advocacy groups and stakeholders. After listening to their concerns, Anita then distills everything she learns so she can give Congresswoman Kelly advice on what policies she should put forth and what bills she should be voting for.
The path from researcher to policy advisor is not necessarily direct, and Anita is honest about the fact that her graduate school research doesn’t necessarily inform how she thinks about Congresswoman Kelly’s policy priorities. (Alas, fruit fly maggots are not yet a key constituency in the US government). Anita describes the world of policy and academic environments as “night and day.” One way this plays out is in the pace of work. While researchers are used to projects moving slowly, and sometimes taking years to finish, deadlines in Anita’s current job sometimes crop up with just a few hours advance notice. This also leads to different expectations regarding expertise. Graduate school leaves you with a deep understanding of one very specific topic, but when researching policy, “you just don’t have the time to dig deeply into things, or become an expert. That was definitely uncomfortable at first,” Anita says. In essence, in her current capacity, policy requires breadth over depth.
“It felt like a totally foreign world to me,” Anita says. “But also it was very exciting and felt very impactful, and that’s what’s kept me around.”
Lastly, Anita notes that when writing policy, it’s not always the “best” policy that wins out; you also have to take into account the dynamics and politics of the community that policy will affect. This is quite different from research, where one’s primary goal is the pursuit of knowledge and finding the answer to their research questions.“It felt like a totally foreign world to me,” Anita says. “But also it was very exciting and felt very impactful, and that’s what’s kept me around.”
Despite these differences between academia and policy, there are a number of ways that Anita’s time as a graduate student has helped her in her current role. Critical thinking, knowing how to ask questions, and poking holes in arguments are all essential skills in science research that Anita uses daily. “You’re constantly analyzing things and deciding whether or not a policy is a good idea. It’s good to have a B.S. detector,” she says. She also finds her experience as a scientist writing for a wide variety of audiences immensely helpful in communicating health policy to a wide swath of people.
One key similarity between academia and working in government is the importance of mentors. “Anyone who’s ever gotten anywhere relies heavily on mentors and the support of their peers,” she says. Before Anita even began graduate school, she recognized the usefulness of good mentorship; Sarah Woolley, her advisor during a summer internship at Columbia, encouraged her to apply to an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship – which she did successfully! Without that guidance, Anita says she wouldn’t have even known the fellowship existed. Anita’s reliance on mentors has continued throughout her time in D.C. She notes, “Especially in D.C., I’m very thankful for the mentors I’ve had, who have made space for me to learn and have encouraged me to grow.” However, she does mention that she now has to make more of an effort to seek and build mentor-mentee relationships. This is yet another difference from academia, where the mentor-mentee relationship is often more built-in.
“Anyone who’s ever gotten anywhere relies heavily on mentors and the support of their peers”… “Especially in D.C., I’m very thankful for the mentors I’ve had, who have made space for me to learn and have encouraged me to grow.”
For many people, leaving academia can be a difficult decision, but Anita knows that it was the right choice for her. She enjoys doing work that has an immediate impact, and having a personal connection to that work, specifically mental health policy, is invigorating. Anita says that her experiences as a graduate student and as a caretaker of a family member inform how deeply she cares about mental health support systems. “Wherever I go, [mental health] will always be something that I’m championing, and trying to normalize and improve policies for.”
Anita Burgos, PhD, is a Senior Health Policy Advisor for the United States Congress.
by Benjamin Michael Silver