Behind every important issue before the Congress are the office staffers of the representatives and senators, who determine how the issue should be handled and what position the member of Congress should take.
Gaining admittance into the inner circle of an elected official is a privilege; few who apply for a position in a congressional office are selected. Since fall 2004, AVMA members Drs. N. Kent Ames and Wendy Shelton have had the privilege of serving in a senator's office as part of the 2004 AVMA Congressional Science Fellowship program.
Through the program, up to three AVMA members a year are selected to serve in the federal government to learn the intricacies of the public policy process.
Dr. Ames was a professor at the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine before his selection as an AVMA fellow. He chose to work in the office of Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, who serves on three committees: Commerce, Science, and Transportation; Energy and Natural Resources; and Finance.
Dr. Ames assists the senator with animal, NASA, and higher education issues. "I found that being a veterinarian gave me instant credibility as an authority on a range of issues," he said.
Other senators and staffers often seek Dr. Ames' scientific expertise. For instance, last winter, after learning Dr. Ames was a veterinarian, Sen. Conrad Burns asked for his input on the wild horse issue in Montana.
The fellowship has had an indelible impact on Dr. Ames. "My fellowship experience has given me a totally different perspective of the veterinary profession and the unlimited scope of activities in which veterinarians can excel," he said.
Dr. Ames plans on returning to Michigan State after his fellowship but notes that the program has forever changed his outlook on the profession. "I look forward to sharing my Capitol Hill experiences with veterinary students and informing them how they may become politically involved," he said.
After a rewarding career in the private sector in California and with the California Department of Health Services, Dr. Wendy Shelton completed her master's in public health and moved to Washington, D.C., to learn more about the policy-making process. She chose to work in the office of Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who sits on the Environment and Public Works, Homeland Security, and Small Business committees.
Dr. Shelton has used her training and knowledge while working primarily on public health issues. She is an integral part of the team that is creating the BioShield II legislation. BioShield I was the landmark legislation authorizing procurement of medical countermeasures to biologic attacks. Bioshield II would add additional incentives for research and development not covered by the original bill.
Although her issues do not always directly involve veterinary medicine, Dr. Shelton's veterinary knowledge and business experience have proved to be invaluable tools. "The specific expertise of veterinarians in the public health and zoonotic disease and foodborne disease fields is becoming clear—particularly at the executive agency level," Dr. Shelton said. "There aren't many animals on Capitol Hill, but vast numbers of people are dealing with issues that touch our field."
Dr. Shelton believes everyone should spend time in Washington, D.C. Although she does not have definitive plans for her post-fellowship career, she is interested in remaining in Washington to continue working on public policy.
"I am truly grateful to the members of the AVMA who made this opportunity possible," Dr. Shelton said. "I think it is a legitimate and productive use of Association resources to place fellows in the government, and the benefits will accumulate over time."
This July, Drs. Ames and Shelton will attend the 2005 AVMA Annual Convention in Minneapolis, where they will give presentations to AVMA members and allied organizations about the important role of veterinary medicine on Capitol Hill.
In 2005, there will be two AVMA congressional fellows and, for the first time, there will also be an Executive Branch Fellow. Drs. Kathleen M. Connell and R. Douglas Meckes will begin working in Congress in September 2005, while Dr. Jeanie Lin will lend veterinary experience to the regulatory process in the Department of Homeland Security.
For more information about the AVMA Congressional Science Fellowship program or the new AVMA Executive Branch Fellowship, or to apply for a 2006-2007 AVMA fellowship, contact Robert Hay Jr., program and administrative coordinator of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division, at (800) 321-1473, Ext. 3208, or rhayavma [dot] org.