Chemists head for the hill

November 8, 2019
Chemistry students dressed in suits pose for a photo on the steps of the Capitol building in the soft light of morning

In Washington, D.C., chemistry students advocate for green energy, sustainable chemistry, and anti-sexual harassment science legislation



At the end of October, 12 chemistry concentrators and four instructors dragged their suitcases into a Harvard shuttle. But instead of taking them across campus, this bus headed for Logan airport and a flight to Congress.

For months, the students, who are members of Heidi Vollmer-Snarr's advanced undergraduate laboratory course, trained with American Chemical Society (ACS) advocacy experts to learn how to translate scientific jargon into potent arguments that anyone, especially nonscientists, could understand. They conducted mock-meetings with mock-legislators and drafted talking points to persuade their legislators, said Vollmer-Snarr, a Senior Preceptor of Chemistry and Chemistry Biology. But she had a final test for her class: in person meetings with real legislators and real stakes.

From October 22 to 24, students met with a total of 29 members of Congress (or their staff). Each visited four senate offices and three or four house offices, speaking directly with at least one actual member of Congress. They also heard Senator Daines speak at the Chemistry Caucus reception. 

On previous trips to D.C., Vollmer-Snarr spoke up for an act to award Congressional Gold Medals to women scientists who contributed to the success of the Space Race. The President signed that act on November 8, 2019. With a successful battle behind her, Vollmer-Snarr and her students selected which bills to champion next. Since the Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act already passed in the house, they planned to help it through the Senate, too. For the Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, they advocated for robust support for STEM education and scientific research. And, together and on their own, they amassed a list of bills of interest, including Sustainable Chemistry Research and the Development Act, Solar, Wind, and Fossil Energy Research and Development Acts of 2019.

"Because of the dearth of scientists on Capitol Hill," Vollmer-Snarr said, "very important legislation related to existential issues such as climate change may be overlooked. These gifted Harvard students will learn chemistry in spite of me, but if they don’t know how to use this knowledge to make the world a better place when they leave, we have failed them.”

Below, photos and quotes capture the chemists' efforts on the hill:



“Science does not exist in a vacuum and its successes and failures are often tied to the level of support it receives. Pedagogically, exposure to real-world advocacy and engagement opens up a new approach for preparing our students for chemistry in the context of its place in society.”

- Zach Zinsli



A group of twelve students and three instructors stand with their suitcases in front of a Harvard shuttle
Bottom row from left: Heidi Vollmer-Snarr, Ji Hae Lee, Natalie Tan, Amelia Woo, Yein Christina Park, Augustine Bannerman, Stephanie Wong, Amanda Maille, Michelle Wang
Top: Zach Zinsli, Jacob Licht, Weimer Macuri-Espinoza, Eugene Oh, Redwan Binrouf, Matthew Hirschfeld
Already on a flight to D.C.: Nicholas Collela, Chemistry Preceptor


"What surprised me the most is how willing people were to meet with us and how receptive they were towards our advocacy attempts. We were able to get meetings with my actual representative, the staffers of my two senators, my classmate’s representative, and the staffers of their two senators as well. One staffer of the Gillibrand office even came prepared with specific questions he wanted to ask in reference to the combating sexual harassment in STEM bill, and asked about my personal experience as a female in STEM and what could be done to further support females in such a male dominant field.”

- Michelle Wang



Chemistry students and teachers pose in their suits for a photo on the National Mall, the Washington monument like a glowing needle in the background


"As a chemistry concentrator, it is easy to get lost in the weeds of technical details and jargon, but this trip reminded me that problems we aim to solve are not only for the lab, but for our world."

- Eugene Oh


"It's easy to toss around words like sustainability and green chemistry, but actually explaining what it is and why it's important? It sounded a lot simpler in my head, and a lot more obvious; of course, I know why we need to go green. But getting other people to see it, busy people with different agendas, who might not agree with me that this is what's best for our country and our planet—That's a different challenge."

- Stephanie Wong


Ji Hae Lee stands in front of the American and Hawaii flags, wearing a gray suit jacket over a black shirt and slacks. She holds a Harvard University folder up for the camera.

Ji Hae Lee (left) spoke with Rep. Brian Schatz from Hawaii, her home state. Within a week, a member of his staff said they're discussing supporting the sustainable chemistry bill, one of many the students chose to advocate for in D.C.
Zach Zinsli wears a blue suit over a checkered blue and white shirt and a red tie. He stands next to American and Massachusetts flags and a mahogany plaque with Senator Elizabeth Warren's name and state. At the base of huge, ornate white columns, three students pose: Augustine, standing beneath a column to the left of the building entrance, makes a peace sign while Amanda and Christina stand to the right, Christina on top of the column's wide base.


Rep. Tom Suozzi posts on Facebook his meeting with Harvard University students about sustainable chemistry. In the photo, he poses for a photo with three students.
Vollmer-Snarr said one of New York Rep. Tom Suozzi's staff members contacted her about a week after their visit to say they have signed on to support the Sustainable Chemistry bill. Her students advocated for the bill during a meeting with him and his staff in D.C.


"The fact that we were able to get a member to cosponsor such an important bill goes to show that student voices and stories are powerful and moving, especially in ways that data and traditional lobbying just aren't. Thank you to Rep. Suozzi for listening to ours!"

- Natalie Tan




Rep. Dan Newhouse wears a white beard, glasses, gray suit and tie with small flowers in various blues. The students wear dark suits, standing to his left and right.

DesJarlais writes in a notebook as he listens to Macuri-Espinoza talk. Above his head are wooden planks cut into the shape of Tennessee with the state's flag--three white stars on a blue circle surrounded in red--painted on them.

Both in black suits, Stephanie and Eugene walk away from the camera, down a hallway with white marble floors, soft yellow walls, and American flags stationed against the walls.


"Mr. Chang [policy advisor for Senator Schatz] asked my group, 'How would you improve or add on to this legislation?' His question suggested that it was okay to think outside of the box and inspired us to go beyond what the legislation proposed."

- Ji Hae Lee



Nine members of the advocacy trip pose in front of the plaque outside Senator Warren's office. They wear dark suits for their meetings on Capitol Hill.



"Due to the sheer number of bills being introduced, many of them are only brought to the attention of legislators when constituents specifically flag them, and this really highlighted the importance of actively participating in science advocacy."

- Amelia Woo



The group wears casual clothes, posing next to an entrance to the White House
In mid-flip in front of the Washington monument, Michelle hangs perpendicular to the ground, her hair whipping toward the sky. She is barefoot, wearing black pants and a patterned blouse. The whole group wears warm, casual clothes, standing outside bright lights advertising the Nationals baseball park at night. The group stayed nearby, but the Nationals were playing an away game in Houston.


“As it was our first time doing any sort of advocacy work, we started by asking for support for bills that have already been introduced. In one conversation with a Science Policy Advisor to Senator Brian Schatz, James Chang, we were told we should be more ambitious in what we were asking for—that we could disagree or ask for legislators to do more than what has been proposed. He said, ‘If I gave you this pen, is this the story you would write?’”

- Amelia Woo






See also: Education, Graduate