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Past Fellows' Experiences
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Past Fellows’ Experiences

Mohammed Alrezq | VA Department of Planning and Budget

During the 2023 COVES fellowship program, I was placed with the Virginia Department of Planning and Budget. The state's revenues can be broadly divided into two categories: General Funds and Non-General Funds. General Funds, which account for 32.8% of the state revenues, are derived from income and sales taxes paid by citizens and businesses. In contrast, Non-General Funds, which make up 67.2% of the state revenues, are earmarked for specific programs. My fellowship primarily focused on General Fund revenues. This fellowship project is the first initiative toward the development of the Virginia stress test model. Historically, there has been a strong correlation between Virginia’s General Fund revenues and fluctuations in the national economy. This trend is expected, considering that Virginia's primary revenue sources, income and sales taxes, are inherently linked to employment rates and consumer spending power. My role involved collecting and analyzing historical data related to Virginia's revenues, Virginia’s growth, and the USA's GDP spanning the last four decades (from 1980 to 2022). I also examined the national recessions within this timeframe. Two outcomes of the fellowship were the initial steps to correlate drops in Virginia’s General Fund to the national economy and cataloging eight options for balancing the state’s budget during economic downturns. Prior to the COVES fellowship, I had a limited knowledge regarding the science-policy field. This fellowship introduced me to this path and allowed me to experience it. While my background is focused on the engineering domain, this experience, along with the tremendous support I received from the director and my mentor, allowed me to leverage my skillsets in many ways to contribute to this fellowship and drive the project forward. 

Shelita Augustus | VA Bio

During my fellowship with Virginia Bio, I explored the field of rare disease research and gene therapies. These therapies, while holding great potential, are often associated with high initial costs due to the intricacy of developing treatments for such unique diseases. To address these financial barriers, I wrote a white paper that discussed various innovative financing methods to fund rare disease therapies. These methods included short-term milestone-based contracts that distribute payments at different stages of drug development, warranty models that hold manufacturers accountable for their therapies' effectiveness, and subscription models that provide continuous revenue for manufacturers while making drugs more accessible to patients. This work is instrumental in Virginia Bio's preparations for the upcoming General Assembly session to prevent the implementation of the Prescription Drug Affordability Board (PDAB) legislation. PDAB legislation aims to regulate drug prices and make medications more affordable. However, it can be detrimental for rare disease therapy financing due to arbitrary price caps, reduced incentives for innovation, and potential impact on patient access to treatments. Alternative financing models may be a better approach to address the financial barriers associated with rare disease therapies. Virginia Bio stands against this legislation because it could limit patient access to life-saving therapies and potentially discourage manufacturers from introducing novel therapies. My work with Virginia Bio helps to shed light on viable financial solutions for rare disease therapies, contributing to vital legislative preparations and, ultimately, aiding the organization's mission to make innovative and life-saving care more accessible to those in need.

Juli Dutta | VA Department of Conservation and Recreation - Dam Safety

In the COVES fellowship, I was placed with Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). I learned about DCR’s Dam Safety program and their purpose, authority, implementation, and state responsibilities toward dam safety. Dams are a vital infrastructure that provide flood protection, water supply reservoirs, hydroelectric power, irrigation, and recreation. They also contribute to economic development and social welfare in the state of Virginia, which can be affected by natural hazards, man-made threats, as well as an imbalance between resources invested and age of a dam. Many US states use National Dam Safety Program (NDSP) funds to protect their dams. For example, many states may use these fund for dam safety training for state personnel, to increase the number of dam inspections, and to conduct dam safety awareness workshops. During the fellowship, I researched various federal funding, such as the NDSP funds, available for dam safety used by different states. I specifically documented the requirements to get access these funds from the federal government, how other states utilized those funds in the their dam safety programs, and various grant categories of FEMA programs in NSDP grants. I also had the pleasure of visiting the Hoover Dam to more personally learn more about dam structures and how they protect and serve the local communities. I am thankful to have participated in the COVES Policy Fellowship. The diverse weekly speakers hosted by VASEM allowed me to learn more about science policy, science communication, and jobs in these fields. These meetings were also a great opportunity to network with the speakers. I am extremely grateful to my host office and mentor for the encouragement during this project.

Zhenyi Huang | VA Department of Health - Office of Minority Health and Health Equity

During my participation in the COVES Fellowship with the Virginia Department of Health, Office of Minority Health and Health Equity, I embarked on an illuminating journey into geospatial public health research. My focus was on perinatal service accessibility in rural Virginia, driven by concerning statistics highlighting limited access to crucial services for rural women. This underscored the urgent need for targeted interventions. Our research uncovered healthcare disparities through a population-weighted centroid-based distance matrix. Leveraging tools like ArcGIS, R, and Microsoft Access for statistical analysis, we unearthed a significant correlation between longer travel times and lower education levels with a higher likelihood of low birth weight. This finding provides valuable insight to shape proactive measures for mitigating adverse birth outcomes. Beyond the data, this research empowers stakeholders to champion change in healthcare accessibility for rural communities. The path forward includes the integration of additional factors into the study, such as exploring the influence of family income on child birth weight. Looking ahead, I aspire to continue collaborating with the Virginia Department of Health in this crucial pursuit. I am profoundly grateful to the COVES Fellowship, mentors, and colleagues who enriched this transformative journey. This experience ignited my passion for impactful research, aligning seamlessly with my commitment to contribute meaningfully through comprehensive solutions that bridge the gap between policy and impact, drawing from my background in statistics.

Kaushal Kafle | VA Department of Education - Office of STEM and Innovation, Computer Science

I had the opportunity to work with Virginia’s Computer Science Coordinator, Keisha Tennessee, in the Department of Education. My project was focused on helping the department to expand Computer Science (CS) learning opportunities within K-12 education in Virginia. To that end, my work can be divided into two categories: i) analyzing and comparing CS education policies of Virginia and other states, and ii) performing data analysis to provide data-driven recommendations. For a larger scale analysis with data spanning multiple years (2021-23), I wrote and provided scripts that helped in automating the task of data collection and data review. Based on my analyses, I was able to make some key observations about the status of K-12 CS education in Virginia, such as the types of CS courses available in each Virginia’s school divisions, the number of high/middle schools that had fully implemented CS standards of learning in their classrooms, and the comparison of Virginia’s teacher salaries with salaries in other states when adjusted for the cost of living. The fellowship was instrumental in my understanding of the role of the government in CS education, and in helping me think of the Government as a stakeholder when performing data analysis tasks. It also helped me learn how policymaking works within the government, how to distill findings from policy documents and government data and communicate the results. Lastly, it has inspired me to think about my own research in a broader context of helping the public and the community-at-large.

Jasmine Lewis | VA Department of Education - Office of STEM and Innovation, Science

As a COVES fellow, I was able to collaborate with the Virginia Department of Education's Science Instruction Team to assist in the review of Standards of Learning and associated resources that support the implementation of K-12 science education in Virginia. Based on my expertise in biological science, I was able to help review the Standards of Learning for Anatomy and Physiology. During my fellowship, I was able to attend a professional development workshop at Virginia Tech, which provided hands-on workshops to support and inspire high school science and math teachers. I enjoyed talking with teachers from around Virginia and learning about the innovative ways they are making science engaging for their students. In addition, I was able to survey scientists around Virginia on their pathway to their career in science to share as a resource for K-12 students with the hope to open the eyes of students to potential career paths. During the fellowship, I was also able to listen to speakers from all aspects of science policy and to participate in workshops on science communication. The COVES fellowship has shown me the importance of policy in education that shapes the curriculum, teaching methodologies and student outcomes. Overall, I have enjoyed my experience at my host office as well as learning more about science policy careers through the weekly COVES workshops. I am truly grateful to have been given an opportunity to serve as a COVES fellow this year.

Sarah Morton | Joint Commission on Health Care

The COVES Policy Fellowship was a wonderful experience that exposed me to a variety of science policy career pathways and helped me develop the skills necessary to pursue a career in policy advisement. This summer, I had the privilege of being hosted by the Virginia Joint Commission on Health Care (JCHC). During my time with the JCHC, I gained a more thorough understanding of the role commissions play in the policymaking process and was given the opportunity to work on one of four current JCHC studies. Specifically, I worked to assess Virginia’s current efforts to address continued health care workforce shortages and to determine the effectiveness of these efforts. To accomplish this, I conducted an environmental scan of current health care workforce development programs using publicly available data and interviews with stakeholders. These efforts culminated in the development of a detailed program inventory of health workforce programs in Virginia that included information about individual program goals, administering agencies, reach, costs, and overall effectiveness. I additionally created a technical report that will be presented to JCHC commission members in November 2023. Overall, this experience helped me develop a much deeper understanding of the legislative process and the vital role that scientists play in informing policy. I am incredibly grateful for the support of my mentors throughout this process and look forward to applying many of the science-policy communication skills that I’ve learned in my current work.

Geovani Muñoz | VA Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services - Office of Recovery Services

For the 2023 COVES Policy Fellowship, I had the honor of working with the Office of Recovery Services (ORS) under the mentorship of Regional Recovery-Oriented Services Manager Alethea Lambert and other members of the ORS staff. As a COVES Fellow, I was tasked with assisting ORS in creating a quality assurance measurement that could be utilized in assessing recovery residences throughout the state of Virginia. To help accomplish this goal, I read various articles, researched other government agencies that had similar initiatives, and examined national standards for recovery residences created by accrediting agencies. I was also fortunate enough to be a part of various meetings and training that helped me gain a better understanding of the work the ORS staff conducts, which also provided insight on the passion this office had for their work. In addition to being a part of these meetings, I was also pleased at the opportunity to join ORS on site visits such as attending the first community-based, non-clinical crisis support facility in the state of Virginia. At the conclusion of the fellowship, I was able to deliver a working quality assurance document that aimed at assessing various aspects of recovery residences. Additionally, I also helped draft a job description and responsibilities for a potential full-time position that would take on the responsibilities of conducting quality assurance for recovery residences in Virginia. I greatly appreciated the opportunity of working alongside the ORS staff and hope to continue my journey in policy research.

Nishat Ara Nipa | VA Innovation Partnership Corporation - Commercialization Division

As a COVES Fellow, I was placed at the Virginia Innovation Partnership Corporation (VIPC) and was entrusted with various significant responsibilities. One of my primary tasks involved meticulously reviewing grant applications from Virginia Universities for the Commonwealth Commercialization Fund (CCF). This included a thorough examination of the application budgets, ensuring their reasonableness and adherence to the CCF program guidelines. Additionally, I was tasked with identifying key characteristics, both strengths and weaknesses, within these grant applications. Furthermore, I actively participated in outreach activities aimed at fostering collaboration with institutions of higher education across Virginia. This allowed me to engage with diverse stakeholders and contribute to the advancement of academia-industry partnerships. One particularly exciting aspect of my work at VIPC was the opportunity to contribute to the development of a white paper focusing on an important policy for Science. This involved comprehensive research, interviewing various stakeholders involved in the process, and studying national best practices. The outcome of this endeavor was the formulation of impeccable recommendations for Founder-Friendly IP
Licensing Policies and practices in Virginia Universities. This policy aims to facilitate the commercialization of university-based intellectual properties. Overall, my experience as a COVES Fellow at VIPC has been immensely rewarding, strengthening my desire to pursue a career that harmonizes academia, industry, and policy in a collaborative

Teri Ramey | VA Department of Forestry

For the duration of my fellowship, I worked directly with Assistant State Forester Terry Lasher at the Virginia Department of Forestry (DOF)  on the Virginia Clean Economy Act, specifically VA HB 2026. I was able to attend several stakeholder meetings that consisted of representatives for Dominion Power, the Virginia Farm Bureau, the Virginia Loggers, The Nature Conservancy, DEQ, The Southern Environmental Law Firm, the Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative, and the Sierra Club among others. These stakeholder meetings were an eye-opening view into how policymaking works behind the scenes and how policy impacts the state departments and the people who work for them. Much like policy, my final product changed as the stakeholder meetings took place with each concern, complaint, and disagreement shaping the needs of the DOF. Ultimately, I was tasked with providing a literature review and justification for a life cycle analysis of carbon for the use of biomass as fuel. The DOF is tasked with creating one by the end of the year, and it is my hope to continue to work with them as they work toward this goal. One of the most incredible parts of this fellowship is the opportunity to meet and work with so many like-minded individuals; from the other fellows, to the speakers, mentors, and supervisors, each person provides an invaluable perspective and point of view that leaves me forever changed. I would love to continue to do work in policy, whether it is through employment or volunteering and am truly grateful to have been chosen as a fellow.

Reilly Stiles | VA Department of Environmental Quality

In my time working with the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the majority of my work was dedicated to solar energy projects in Virginia. I contributed to the process of revising Virginia House Bill 206 (HB206), which outlines the DEQ’s Small Renewable Energy Permit-by-Rule (PBR) program for issuing permits to solar projects less than 150 megawatts. My contributions mainly came from researching a variety of topics related to solar siting, including environmental impacts of solar farms, solar siting in states surrounding Virginia, Agrivoltaics, and carbon emission offsets from solar energy. I also attended two of the Regulatory Advisory Panel (RAP) meetings, which were led by the DEQ to discuss solar impacts to prime agricultural soils and forests and present proposals for mitigation of these issues to a variety of stakeholders. Beyond my main contributions, I supported a few smaller projects with different members of the DEQ, such as documenting solar siting restrictions in Virginia counties and mapping proposed state districts for mitigation. I even had the opportunity to engage with members of numerous other state agencies, including the Department of Forestry and Department of Energy, which was very useful in understanding different perspectives on issues related to solar siting. At the end of my experience, the main lessons I had learned were that science policy is simultaneously a slow and fast process, and that the future of renewable energy use depends on improved solar energy policy.

Duc Tran | VA Department of Conservation and Recreation - Floodplain Management

The COVES Fellowship has offered a fresh look into the world of state-level policy-making. While my previous roles in academia, both in the United States and internationally, were focused on systematic problem-solving, the COVES Fellowship provides me with a great opportunity to examine very large and complex real-world problems at a high level and to address them with comprehensive and sustainable solutions. During the Summer of 2023, I worked with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), focusing on the promotion of the new “Floodplain Module” within the Dam Safety Information System (DSIS). This project plays a vital role in supporting the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). My responsibilities include: (1) Conducting Community Assistant Contact (CAC) and Community Assistant Visits (CAV); (2) Collecting essential data sets such as Zoning Ordinance and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data sets; and (3) Reviewing ordinances and updating DCR’s templates and letters. The aim was not merely to save time, cost, and labor but to foster a durable connection between DCR and other stakeholders, towns, and counties, thus enhancing the efficacy of FEMA’s NFIP program. The COVES Fellowship provided more than professional growth; it allowed me to build meaningful relationships with distinguished speakers, mentors, and colleagues. This enriching journey has profoundly impacted my research aspirations and added a new dimension to my graduate student experience. I am now ready to continue my involvement with the policy-making community, drawing on the knowledge and skills honed during this fellowship. I am committed to devising integral and sustainable solutions to some of the most pressing societal challenges, and I am confident that this experience has equipped me to make a meaningful difference in my journey.

Dreon Wheatley-Owens | Office of the Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources

In my role in the Office of the Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources, I engaged with various agencies throughout the summer and collected information from each to create trackable metrics in their implementation of Executive Order 17. Executive Order 17 is an order that mandates Virginia executive agencies to implement recycling policies. The goal of Executive Order 17 was to create an awareness for recycling and waste management as well as create more clean technology jobs. My tasks in this effort allowed me the privilege of learning about Executive Order 17, contributing to a positive impact on society, and connecting with various agencies to understand how they are implementing the order. My goal in connecting with the various agencies (General Services, Environmental Quality, Wildlife Resources, etc.) was to find trackable metrics that could be used to measure how efficiently each agency is implementing the order and possibly find ways to improve any inefficiencies. Some metrics I found included how much the agency recycled on a weekly basis and how many containers each agency was utilizing for recycling. Throughout the summer I found that many agencies had very different ways of implementing the order. Some agencies responded with increasing recycling containers in offices while others created resources for other agencies to promote recycling and waste management. After having experienced this fellowship I can confidently say that I am appreciative of the experience and have gained much from doing it. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to collaborate with various agents on achieving the goals of Executive Order 17.