Where I Belong


By Katelyn Liu

Skimming through the document posted on a bulletin board in the UNC Gillings School of Public Health titled, “Summer Research Internship Description,” my immediate thought was, “This is not for me.” I knew my skillset as a public policy major and it certainly had nothing to do with lab work in “developmental aquatic toxicology” or “neural and behavioral toxicity assessment.” I nearly gave up after reading the first three cores’ descriptions before I reached the fourth core: Research Translation. Immediately, my experience and interests were piqued and I said, “Maybe I can do that.”

Fast-forward a couple months to where I am now, knee-deep in an internship with the Research Translation Core (RTC) of the Duke University Superfund Research Center (SRC).  I’ve spent three years learning, exploring, and enjoying the difference facets of public policy as a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and found a unique opportunity to see the put these pieces into practice at the Duke SRC.

Given my niche interest in food policy research, the lovely people in the RTC have fashioned a summer project for me around survey research conducted in the Elizabeth River area of Virginia. Our goal is to better understand the impact and public perception of fish consumption advisories (FCA) for populations that fish in the Elizabeth River area. There is currently an FCA in the fishing area for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a contaminant mixture from industrial processes that can cause a number of different adverse effects in people, including developmental impacts. Understanding a community’s relationship with its FCA will help to improve the FCA’s sensitivity and efficacy in the future. The experience thus far has exceeded any of my preconceived expectations.

Here at the RTC, I’ve seen how classroom assignments, such as writing a literature review, can be practically applied as integral steps of the community engagement process. Through survey data synthesis, I’ve been challenged to learn and understand the nitty-gritty mechanics of how research results are produced. I’ve been encouraged to see classroom lessons materialize in “real life” while also breaking into unknown territories of research that at one point seemed too overwhelming for me to approach.  

So let’s rewind. Reading those descriptions of the Superfund internships, why was I so afraid? Here’s why: I thought that policy doesn’t belong in science. For me, working at the RTC was a foray into, a previously unknown territory where policy meets science. This disconnect between the science and policy means that even when researchers have commendable achievements, they may only have a small audience that can actually understand and apply their discoveries. The most important audience, the general public, desires to be educated but may be intimidated by the barriers of scientific jargon. This is where the work of the RTC happens.

As we’ve met with graduate students from different Superfund labs every week, the majority have voiced that an additional attraction of their respective programs came from the relationship the cores had with the RTC. More and more, scientists and researchers have seen that simply producing standalone science, as outstanding as it may be, is not enough. The laborious task of producing publishable research means quite little if its reach halts at the edge of the scientific community. The forays of scientific research should be equally exciting and important to the general public as they are to scientists and their colleagues. The RTC aims to enter into this gap between scientific discovery and the public by digesting research into consumable portions that are both educational and applicable to a broader target audience.

As I think of my return this fall to public policy at UNC, public policy presents itself as the indispensable connector between two worlds of scientific researchers and the general public. Neither science nor policy alone can ever fully realize their potential for broad impact without the other. Throughout my undergraduate career I’ve loved my major in public policy for its material and relevance to my own interests, but struggled to communicate its impact and significance to those who simply wrote it off as “lawmaking” or “political jargon.” So this summer, as I collate cells in Excel and annotate pages of research articles, I’ve come to see policymakers as the point of connectivity between two worlds. With my education and experience, this is exactly where I belong.