Kathryn Lopez, a Ph.D. student studying Environmental and Water Resources Engineering, wanted to explore how to use her science and engineering knowledge and skills to advocate for and influence science-based public policy.

“I was looking for ways to connect to the Capital Region in a policy role. Universities across the country have similar programs, but Virginia Tech didn’t,” she said.

She decided to fill that void at Virginia Tech. Now two years old, the Science Policy Education and Advocacy Club (SPEAC, pronounced “speak”) boasts members from at least four colleges across the university. Most are graduate students, but a few undergraduate students also have joined, she added.

“Most STEM programs do not adequately prepare students to effectively communicate with policymakers or show students how they can partake in the policymaking process,” Lopez noted.

Lopez, who serves as the interdisciplinary group’s president, and colleagues Lia Kelinsky-Jones and Sarah Derrick note that the group has three main goals: educating members about career and other opportunities in science policy; helping them develop effective communications skills to address policy ideas; and encouraging members to become advocates and have a voice in shaping government and policy. The organization is a recognized chapter of the National Science Policy Network and a local allied group with the Union of Concerned Scientists. It also holds seminars and works with partners to implement projects. Todd Schenk, assistant professor in the School of Public and International Affairs, is the group’s faculty advisor.

Kelinsky-Jones, a Ph.D. student in the Agriculture, Leadership, and Community Education program, and Derrick, a second-year master’s student in the School of Communication, said the group already has begun work with the Town of Blacksburg on science policy issues.

“Our advisor suggested we talk with Carol Davis, Blacksburg’s sustainability manager, to see if there was something we could help with,” said Kelinsky-Jones, SPEAC’s advocacy chair.

Davis said the timing was fortuitous. Blacksburg had signed onto the U.S. Conference  of Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement and had conducted a climate vulnerability assessment that noted several threats to the region, one of which was food insecurity.

“They decided to tackle food systems and food insecurity and the concerns related to climate vulnerability in a multi-disciplinary way,” said Davis.

Nine SPEAC members are working on the project, with Kelinsky-Jones and Derrick as co-leads.

“They have outlined some rough policy steps,” Davis said of SPEAC’s work thus far. “We want to develop a food resiliency group.”

Derrick said SPEAC wants to help prepare a group of stakeholders to determine how to address the findings of the assessment.

“We are not outlining the mitigation plan for that,” Derrick said. “We are developing recommendations around what the stakeholders might consider as they create a mitigation plan. It is vital that the community members are the ones deciding on action.”

Kelinsky-Jones said the group’s work thus far has been to examine the literature on food insecurity and climate change, and to survey other communities that also signed the Mayors Agreement to ask what they are doing and if they are willing to share their documentation.

“We’re doing a deep dive into the responses,” she said.

Davis said Blacksburg already is talking with Winston-Salem, N.C., based on that community’s work and the policies developed to address food security.

They also plan to survey local organizations for their recommendations. Then Kelinsky-Jones and Derrick will write the policy memo advising the town to adopt food insecurity as an action issue.

“This is local science policy work,” Derrick said. “We can’t influence the national agenda, but we can work at the local level. I’m excited because we are putting a lot on the docket for the general public.”

Davis said the group’s work has been invaluable and she looks forward to continuing efforts together. “I think what I like about them is that this is a durable relationship,” she said. “I’m always blown away by the professors and students at Virginia Tech.”

Lopez said she is delighted with SPEAC’s growth over the past two years: “The most exciting thing is that it started as an idea. I struggled to get five people, and now we have closer to 50.” 


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