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Penn Student Policy Group Takes Impactful, Concise Message to DC

Back in December, when the chatter about budget cuts to the National Institutes of Health started getting louder, Penn PhD students Michael Allegrezza and Shaun O’Brien decided it was time to join the conversation and advocate. They wanted to bring that on-the-ground scientist voice into the mix but knew it had to be something their research is not: clear and simple.

“You need to personalize the work so people can relate to it,” says O’Brien, a fifth year Immunology doctoral candidate. “Researchers need to communicate their findings and talk about the impacts… to get people, the taxpayers, to see why biomedical research is so important.”

So the two started the Penn Science Policy Group, a coalition that now has about 90 science graduate and postdoctoral students out there, explaining their science and advocating to restore and even increase funds to the NIH.

The Penn Science Policy Group headed to Washington, D.C., April 8 for the Rally for Medical Research

Last Monday, in their first foray to Washington, D.C., the group took their distilled messages to the Rally for Medical Research. The event drew thousands, and was sponsored by well-known medical organizations, such as the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) and the American Heart Association.

In a sea of signs with slogans like “Support Medical Research, Your Life Depends on it,” the group donned lab coats while at the Rally and listened to celebrities, politicians, patients and advocacy groups speak about the issues. Then they headed up to Capitol Hill, for some one-on-one time with staffers.

Different students met with Sen. Bob Casey and Sen. Pat Toomey’s staff, as well as the office of Rep. Chaka Fattah, who represents the area surrounding Penn.

“People coming into this work are going to have to realize they are going to be advocates,” says O’Brien. “They are going to have to learn how to talk to the general public, and they are going to have to network and lobby for the research community.”

O’Brien admits his Immunology research is tough to understand, so he came up with a spiel for people to wrap their heads around.

“Our lab tinkers with regulators of DNA, so we can make the T cells in the immune system better at killing stuff, like cancer,” he says he tells people. He gets more nodding yeses with that one.

For Jenessa Smith, a second year cell and molecular biology doctoral candidate who “develops novel strategies to genetically modify T cells to target and attack ovarian cancer cells,” joining the group has been an exercise of words.

“It’s good to talk about how we talk,” says Smith. “When you are here at Penn, you are in this very specific setting with everybody who knows exactly what you are talking about. So to talk more broadly is more difficult to us. But it’s a very important skill for graduate students.”

Too often the details of science and how it helps us are lost on people, simply because it’s too complicated. And it’s not immediate. People can be impatient, which works against the very nature of how research evolves and ends up in your doctor’s hands. 

“These things take time,” says O’Brien. Scientists need to connect the dots for people if they are going to make a case—and ultimately get them to support funding, he adds. The NIH is set to lose $1.6 billion from their annual budget of $31 billion because of automatic spending cuts.

Today, the advocacy continues back on campus. Researchers presenting their work at the Penn Science Students Research Symposium were encouraged to add information to their posters that spoke to another important issue: jobs. Breaking down the number of job supported by NIH funds is another tool, O’Brien says, that can help highlight the less thought about impacts.

The Penn Science Policy Group also has meetings that examine career growth and graduate medical education, and general discussions about how to do a better job of explaining what they do. Because communication skills can come in handy when applying to grants, talking to the media and even chatting with peers in other disciplines.

“Speak up,” says O’Brien. “We need to have stronger voices.”

For more on the Penn Science Student Research Symposium, visit

The event starts at 1 pm Friday, April 12 in the Biomedical Research Building Lobby and Auditorium. Additional staffers from Sen. Casey and Toomey’s office will be present, and House Rep. Chaka Fattah will be delivering closing remarks at 5:30pm.

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