Science Policy & Funding Feature

Ashlee Wilkins: A Space Scientist Goes to Washington

“Big-picture science questions” fuel science policy discussions.

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Go to The Career Issue to read more profiles.Ashlee Wilkins realized that she might not want to be an academic researcher before she started graduate school.

Wilkins was an intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in the summers before and after her senior undergraduate year at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. She was working with the deputy project scientist of the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission just before its launch in late 2009, and that same scientist was already planning for the telescope’s postmission life, named NEOWISE. It gave Wilkins the chance to see the final stages before a mission launches as well as the first stages as a new idea takes hold.

“I was learning a lot about…prioritizing the right time to do what kind of mission, or how you decide on big-picture science questions and fitting missions into a larger strategy,” Wilkins said. “That was just really exciting to me.”

The desire to learn about mission planning influenced her decision to attend graduate school at the University of Maryland (UMD) in College Park, not far from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, where Wilkins worked for a time. In addition to her graduate research about exoplanets, she helped start and lead an initiative called GRAD-MAP, which connects UMD graduate students with undergraduates from minority-serving institutions in the mid-Atlantic region. The program “continued this evolution of my interest in how we do the science, and who gets to do the science, and the strategy for science, and not just the actual research itself.”

Wilkins’s shift toward a policy focus was ushered along with her election to student government in graduate school. “As a graduate student there are a lot of opportunities to get involved at very high levels of the university,” she said. Moreover, living so close to the nation’s capital offered her the chance to attend hearings and see science policy in action. After graduate school, she became the John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow at the American Astronomical Society, which is “specifically designed to take a Ph.D. scientist and provide them with the opportunity to learn…about the world of science and space policy.”

“I was lucky in the timing because it was in my second year of the fellowship when the Democrats took the House in 2018,” she said. The results of the election meant that the former minority party would soon be hiring staff for the committees they would run, and it just so happened that a position opened up in the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. “I had the experience of the fellowship behind me—and I had interacted with the person who was my future boss through my work as the Bahcall Fellow.”

Out of 35 or so staffers in the majority office of the House Science Committee, Wilkins is one of three who focus on space topics. You can follow Wilkins on Twitter (@ashleeeeew) and the subcommittee for updates on science and space policy.

This profile is part of a special series in our September 2021 issue on science careers.

—Kimberly M. S. Cartier (@AstroKimCartier), Staff Writer

Citation: Cartier, K. M. S. (2021), Ashlee Wilkins: A space scientist goes to Washington, Eos, 102, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021EO162396. Published on 24 August 2021.
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