Two Virginia Tech graduate students are among the latest cohort of Commonwealth of Virginia Engineering and Science (COVES) fellows.

Mohammed Alrez, a Ph.D. student in industrial and systems engineering in the College of Engineering, and Jasmine Lewis, a doctoral student in biological psychology in the College of Science, join 12 other Virginia graduate students who will spend the summer working with state agencies, legislators, and other organizations on policy issues.

The Virginia Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine launched the program in January 2020 with the goal of introducing graduate students from the sciences and engineering to the world of policy, said COVES program coordinator Sarah Hall, who was in the first cohort of fellows and is a Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering at Virginia Tech.

“These are students who don’t necessarily have any policy experience,” said Hall. The fellowship aims to help students see the connections between their fields and public policy. The first week of the fellowship is a “science policy bootcamp and orientation,” which teaches the fellows about science policy and communication and provides an overview of how policy and governance work in Virginia, Hall said.

“We train them during the first week of the fellowship on these different skills that they need: how to communicate to different audiences, how to write policy memos and policy briefs, what’s the point of these things, and how to network and engage with audiences who don’t or may not know exactly what you are talking about,” Hall said.

Students also are paired with an academy member who services as a mentor throughout the fellowship.

After the bootcamp, the new fellows are placed in state departments, legislative offices, or companies and nonprofits throughout the commonwealth, serving as science advisors to their host office. Often the work is unrelated to their fields, but sometime there is a match. “You might have an environmental engineer working on a policy related to pharmaceuticals — very different worlds, but you can still use the skills you have learned” Hall said.

Their work during the fellowship weeks may include researching an issue, proposal, or project; drafting or revising relevant policies; or working with the public.  Students receive a $9,000 stipend and $2,000 in professional development funds during their terms.

 The first cohort of fellows was made up of six graduate students: one from each of five partner universities and one chosen from applicants at historically Black colleges and universities in the state. Virginia Tech was among the partner institutes. Since then, the number of participating institutions and the number of fellows selected has grown.

“Growth was something we were really passionate about,” Hall said. “Our goal was to get to 15 fellows.” In 2022, the COVES team met that goal.

Hall said the 2023 class includes 14 students and postdoctoral fellows.

Seven Virginia Tech graduate students are program alumni, including four who completed their work in summer 2022.

Graduate School Dean Aimée Surprenant said she has been impressed with the excellence of the students who have received COVES fellowships.

"The COVES fellows program provides a valuable opportunity for our graduate students to use their expertise in science and engineering to tackle real-world policy challenges, bridging the gap between science and policy and paving the way for a future where innovative ideas can lead to impactful change," Surprenant said. "It's inspiring to see the caliber of students selected for this fellowship, and I have no doubt that they will make a significant impact in Virginia and beyond."

Hall’s trajectory from fellow to program coordinator was based on her passion for the work. She volunteered with the program and began helping recruit students for the 2021 class. From her background info on the Virginia Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine website: “I was really passionate about trying to get other people into the program.” She was offered the coordinator position a year later.

Hall said sometimes fellows will come into the program planning on a career in academia or specifically in industry after graduation, “but then they have this experience and that sort of changes either the career they want or maybe just how they’re pursuing their career. There have been fellows that I have chatted with who have explicitly expressed that they want to go into science policy after their graduate education is finished.” She noted that several program alumni now work in science policy careers.

She said the program has become more competitive during the past three years as awareness of the fellowship and the field of science policy has grown. “I think people are just becoming more aware that science policy is something that they could use their graduate degree for. There’s a lot of interest because it is more interdisciplinary, it feels more hands-on, and more tangible. It gives you a new perspective.”

In the program’s 2022 review, the four Virginia Tech fellows in that year’s cohort also offered thoughts on their experiences.

Jennifer Bertollo, a doctoral student in psychology in the College of Science, worked with the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV), reviewing student support services. “Having the opportunity to attend a SCHEV meeting and to present my findings to staff gave me a look behind the scenes at state policymaking,” she said.

Frankie Edwards, a doctoral student in the Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health program, worked with the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to review crisis services programs. “I hope my reporting documenting the mental health and substance abuse crisis and the evidence-based strategies to improve crisis-response training will help the office better target stakeholders.”

Yezi Yang, a doctoral student in geosciences in the College of Science, worked with Del. Sally Hudson’s office, researching the demographics of the House of Delegates. “I learned not only to write accurately and concisely, but also to write with respect, empathy, and a sliver of hope,” she said.

Alissa Ganser, a Ph.D. student in fish and wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, worked with Sen. Jennifer McClellan’s office on a variety of projects, including organizing a town hall event, preparing talking points for the senator, and working directly with constituents. “Being a COVES fellow changed my life. I am now planning to embark on a career in science policy.”

Hall’s own experience is guiding her education and career path. She has a deep interest in science communication and science policy, and she ultimately hopes to work in science diplomacy and global health.

To learn more about the COVES fellowship, please visit the program website.


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