Rebecca French, who will complete her Ph.D.  in geosciences this summer, has been awarded a Congressional Science Fellowship by the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

The Congressional Science Fellowship program places highly qualified, accomplished scientists, engineers, and other professionals in the offices of either an individual member of Congress or on the staff of a congressional committee for a one-year assignment. AGU Fellows have the opportunity to make significant contributions to public-policy making.  Past AGU Fellows have been directly involved in water policy, climate research, energy conservation, and a range of other high-visibility environmental issues.

“Rebecca may be the most talented graduate student in the broadest sense that I have ever seen,” said Michael Hochella, university Distinguished Professor of Geosciences and French’s major advisor. “Her interpersonal and communication skills, her maturity and judgment, and her interest in the public policy process are all literally off the charts.”

Congressional Fellows perform as regular staff members. Activities may range from assisting in the preparation of major parts of budget authorization bills, writing press releases or speeches for members of Congress on a wide range of topics, answering constituent mail, assisting in legislative debates, or meeting with lobbyists and special interest groups.

“I’ve always been driven by an interest in service,” French said “Fundamental science is an underlying theme in environmental and public health issues. It’s most rewarding for me when I can combine service and science to solve problems in those areas.”

French’s expertise is in the fields of  nanogeoscience and environmental chemistry. She is also a member of the Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology, a $15 million grant with six collaborating universities, awarded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

French was a graduate student representative on the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors during the 2009-2010 academic year, a role in which she served as a liaison between the board, university administration, and graduate students. French also served on the university’s Health Insurance Review Committee as a Graduate Student Assembly cabinet member, which enabled her to spearhead policies to provide better health care insurance coverage to students.

“My participation in student government and attendance at scientific meetings gave me the skills to translate science for non-technical audiences,” she said. “Most importantly, the fellowship role will help ensure that policy does not fail as a result of poor interpretation of the work of scientists. I will work with decision-makers, but will not dictate policy.”

French earned her master’s degree in environmental soil chemistry and ecotoxicology from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and her bachelor’s degree in chemistry and environmental studies from Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio.

“Someone with Rebecca’s exceptional academic success, coupled with her understanding of and action towards service, outreach, and public engagement, are exceptionally rare and truly spectacular at the same time,” Hochella said. “Her sophistication, thoughtfulness, and desire to make a difference are beyond compare.”

French will begin her term in September 2011.



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