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Dr. Rath Goes to Washington

Dr. Rath Goes to Washington
When James Rath leaves for Washington D.C. at the end of August to work as a congressional aide, he’ll take with him an unusual qualification—a Ph.D. in mathematics.

Rath, a lecturer and post-doctoral researcher in the math department, is going to D.C. as part of the Congressional Fellowship program sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He’ll be one of 30 fellows to spend a year working for a congressperson or a congressional committee as a special legislative assistant for areas requiring scientific and technical expertise.

“There’ll be chemists, biologists, engineers, physicists,” says Rath. “I was the candidate nominated by the American Mathematical Society.”

Rath, who got his doctor's degree from The University of Texas at Austin in computational and applied mathematics, doesn’t know yet what policy area he’ll be taking on, but he hopes that he’ll be able to get involved with some aspect of energy.

“My research as an applied mathematician looks at how to improve simulations of potential oil reservoirs,” he says. “Nothing I’ll do in Washington will require me to draw on the specifics of what I do as a scientist, but I understand, from my research and from years of being connected to the petrochemical industry, the science behind most of the big energy policy questions.”

Rath also hopes, he says, to be useful to his bosses as a science generalist, someone who can read a scientific paper, and deal with research data, and get a good sense of what’s going on even if it’s not his area of expertise.

“On most of the big science policy issues, from supercomputers to nanotechnology to stem cell research, I’m not an expert,” he says, “but I know enough to be able to explain their significance to a congressperson, to be able to help him or her discuss or debate the issues intelligently with their colleagues.

"I’m also not afraid of picking up a journal article and digging into it. I was recently reading an article in the New York Times about the three members of congress who are physicists, and one of them talks about how, after the anthrax scare, he was approached by colleagues asking him to explain anthrax to them.

"Not surprisingly, he didn’t know much about it to begin with—he’s a physicist, after all—but he had the type of mind and experience that enabled him to go and read through encyclopedia articles and medical journals to figure out the lowdown on anthrax. He wasn’t intimidated by jargon or by the abstract reasoning in journal articles. I think I can bring that same sort of experience.”

Rath doesn’t yet know who he’s going to work for—all the fellows get together at a mixer with congressional staff in early September and assignments follow from that—or even what political party he’ll be associated with. He hopes to end up working for someone, however, who takes science seriously, and who takes seriously the need to adequately fund basic research and higher education.

His goal for the year, he says, is to have some small influence on the nation’s policies, and to better his own understand of the intersection of science and politics. After that, he plans to return to the academic life.

“For right now, though,” he says, “I just want to find an apartment in D.C.”

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Saturday, 28 January 2023

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