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May 2022 (Volume 31, number 5)
By Tawanda W. Johnson
With a combined passion for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and scientific inquiry, Thomas Plumb-Reyes, the 2022 APS Congressional Science Fellow, is poised to make a positive impact on Capitol Hill.
“I’m deeply honored to be selected,” said Plumb-Reyes. “I’m excited to meet and learn from other fellows and alumni with diverse backgrounds and ideas.”
APS sponsors the fellowship under the umbrella of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Technology Fellowships to make individuals with scientific knowledge and skills available to members of Congress, few of whom have technical backgrounds. In turn, the program enables scientists to broaden their experience through direct involvement with the policymaking process.
Fellows work directly with congressional leaders and staff for a year, usually from September to August. Fellows complete a two-week orientation in Washington, DC, interview on Capitol Hill, and then choose a congressional office or committee to serve.
Plumb-Reyes earned a PhD in applied physics from Harvard University and brings a wealth of experience, from teaching science and gender equity classes to co-establishing organizations that help marginalized students feel welcome in STEM.
“He has the perfect combination of communication, problem-solving and leadership skills, and a strong motivation to address societal problems through education and science policy,” wrote Eric Mazur, Academic Dean and Professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard, in a letter of support for Plumb-Reyes.
Sarah S. Richardson, Professor of the History of Science and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, said Plumb-Reyes was an excellent student and teacher. “My engagement with Thomas shows his willingness to stretch himself intellectually and leave his comfort zone in order to learn new things,” she wrote.
After his fellowship, Plumb-Reyes may seek a career that lets him shape data-driven policies, ensuring that they reflect the perspectives of stakeholders likely to be impacted by these policies.
Consider artificial intelligence, Plumb-Reyes said. AI could transform human decision-making—but if it’s used recklessly, it could become a “technological cover-up” for existing bias and discrimination. “Machine-learning algorithms and facial recognition tools could be used to direct healthcare, identify criminal suspects, and inform bail, parole and sentencing determinations,” he explained. But if these tools are created and used uncritically, they could reinforce discrimination that already exists, “with a sheen of scientific or technological objectivity.”
No matter the challenge, Plumb-Reyes said that policy solutions are strongest when they incorporate diverse perspectives. He attributed this view, in part, to his family: His mother, a native Spanish speaker and one-time migrant farmworker, pursued a career in social work in the Sacramento community in which he grew up.
“[She] taught me about the opportunities provided by education and the struggles of being an immigrant, low-income or minority person in this country,” said Plumb-Reyes.
And as an advocate for education policies, his mother was sensitive to the needs and experiences of immigrant and low-income communities. “She showed me how policy is enriched by closely involving stakeholders in its development,” he said.
Plumb-Reyes brought these lessons to Harvard, where he helped develop a program aimed at helping attendees feel welcomed during the 2017 Northeast meeting of the APS Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP).
“The other organizers and I felt it was important to center the conversation on groups who may even feel marginalized in a conference like CUWiP,” he explained. The workshop, called Supporting Inclusion of Underrepresented Peoples (SPIN UP), took place before the conference and focused on the needs of a smaller group of attendees.
Plumb-Reyes also co-founded the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences’ Society of Underrepresented Students in STEM, an affinity group for peers to connect for formal and informal support.
“Our goal was to create a comfortable and empathetic space where students could share their experiences, develop the skills they need, exchange advice, and see themselves represented in the field,” he said.
Plumb-Reyes’ teaching experience will also serve him well. At Harvard, he taught diverse courses intended for non-majors, from “Applied Physics 50” and “Finding Your Way.” For both courses, he said, he “broke down science into understandable lessons and applicable scenarios.”
Mark Elsesser, APS Director of Government Affairs, is eager to see Plumb-Reyes succeed.
“Thomas is bringing great experience and a terrific skillset with him to Capitol Hill,” Elsesser said. Whichever congressional office Plumb-Reyes serves in, Elsesser added, will be lucky to have him.
Tawanda W. Johnson is APS Senior Public Relations Manager.
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