Veterinarian remains a student of the legislative process

Former AVMA fellow worked on Senate Finance Committee
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Dr. Babcock
Dr. Sarah Babcock

Dr. Sarah Babcock spent much of the past year as a staffer on the Senate Committee on Finance, whose jurisdiction on taxation and revenue ranges from foreign trade to Medicare and Medicaid. The Department of Homeland Security, where Dr. Babcock has worked in the Office of Health Affairs since 2007, temporarily assigned her to a fellowship with the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization that helped her apply for a position with the Senate committee. The former AVMA Executive Branch Science Fellow, who also has a law degree, talked with JAVMA News about how a veterinarian ended up working for one of the most powerful committees in Congress.

How long were you at the DHS before your Brookings fellowship?

After my AVMA fellowship with the Department of Homeland Security ended in 2007, I was hired to work at the DHS Office of Health Affairs. I'm the senior adviser for science and policy to the department's assistant secretary of health affairs and chief medical officer. I've worked on a number of projects in that capacity, including implementing the strategic direction plan for the office's 2009 H1N1 influenza team.

I also served as a public health and medical contact in the OHA, coordinating with federal-, state-, and private-sector partners to improve coordination and response. On occasion, I represent the assistant secretary on federal committees and working groups.

Why did you become a Brookings fellow?

For several reasons. While my legal education provided me with formal training relating to our government's Legislative Branch, I wanted insight into how Congress makes public policy. My interest in legislative policy grew stronger after my experiences as an AVMA Governmental Relations Division extern and fellow in the Department of Homeland Security.

Firsthand experience of the complexities associated with the federal policymaking process is a rare quality. My home agency—the Office of Health Affairs—recognizes that a strong understanding about the formation of public policy is a critically important responsibility for government leaders. OHA understood my desire to broaden my knowledge about the American political process and supported my applying to the Brookings Institution Congressional Fellowship program.

Brookings provided an intensive two-week orientation led by experts while also offering educational seminars throughout the fellowship on such topics as "Inside Congress" and "Advanced Legislative Strategies." The Brookings training program emphasizes applied learning needed to tackle the most complex issues.

I'm also participating in the Brookings Certificate in Public Leadership Program, which, when I complete the program this year (2011), will give me a credential from a world-renowned public policy and research organization. The program has given me an opportunity to develop the skills and mindset necessary for effective leadership, particularly at a time marked by political and economic complexity and change like the one in which we currently find ourselves.

What are some of the issues you handled when you staffed the Senate committee?

The Senate Committee on Finance has very broad jurisdiction. A few areas where the committee has oversight are taxation, customs, trade, some Health and Human Services programs, and Social Security. I'm fortunate to have worked on many of these issues. I provided subject matter expertise to the committee chairman—Max Baucus of Montana—and the team dealing with international trade, focusing on agriculture issues pertaining to South Korean, Panamanian, and Colombian free-trade agreements and domestic policy. I also worked on committee issues important to Chairman Baucus related to the nonprofit sector and tax reform.

Senator Baucus' membership on the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction was an opportunity to work on budget and deficit reduction. My job was to help the chairman formulate strategies for implementing fiscal discipline while also helping organizations continue to provide necessary public goods and services.

Have your veterinary education and training been useful in Washington?

Very much so. My veterinary education trained me to be an effective communicator and relay technical information in a manner understood by different audiences. My expertise in animal diseases and public health enable me to provide valuable support on international agriculture trade matters and domestic agriculture policy.

How have you been able to use both your veterinary and law degrees?

My formal education in veterinary medicine and law complement each other quite nicely. Both provide a valuable framework and shape the way I process and communicate information. I have been able to participate in cross-disciplinary projects and experiences during my government service.

Additionally, I have had the opportunity to teach law and ethics to veterinary students and veterinarians. This year, I am teaching law and ethics at Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.

Teaching has been very rewarding work and helps me combine my passion for the veterinary profession with my legal expertise and experiences. My career has been deeply enriched by my mentors, and teaching provides me with an opportunity to share what I have learned and experienced with others.

How will your fellowship help you at the Homeland Security Department?

I return to DHS with a clearer understanding of congressional policymaking, an in-depth understanding of the legislative life cycle, new leadership capabilities, and an expanded network and political acumen that will better inform my work at the department. The leadership training better prepared me to meet the challenges of the 21st century as a public servant.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

Public service has been uniquely fulfilling. I have found being a part of something bigger than an individual contribution very rewarding and intend to stay in public service.