From our house to the White House. Kinda

Jackie Ward, PhD. Photo courtesy National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke

It’s always fun to meet someone early in their career and see how they grow and evolve and take on new challenges.

I first met Jackie Ward when she received a training grant from CIRM while she studied for her PhD at the University of California, San Diego. Jackie offered to write blogs for us about her experience and they were always fun, informative, elegantly written and very engaging. Fast forward a few years and Jackie became a part of Americans For Cures, then she became Chief of Staff at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), and finally – at least so far – she took on the role of Assistant Director at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

Not too shabby eh.

So, I reached out to Jackie and asked her some questions about her work and career. She generously put aside keeping the nation healthy to answer them. Enjoy.

  1. What made you decide to move from research into government.

I think if you asked my high school government teacher (shout out to Mr. Bell!), he would be the least surprised person that I have ended up where I am currently. I was always interested in topics and activities beyond science, but at a certain point you have to choose a path. When it came time to deciding my undergraduate major, I figured that if I pursued my interest in biology it would still keep my options open to do something different in my career, but if I chose to be a French major, or Political Science major, or English major – I might close the door in my ability to pursue scientific research. When I got to graduate school, I saw the impact of government (both state and federal) decisions on work in the lab. This takes the form of where funding goes, but also in the rules you have to follow while doing research. Though I liked the pursuit of new knowledge and being the one designing and performing experiments, I was interested in understanding more about how those government decisions are made upstream of the lab bench.

  1. What’s the most surprising thing you have learned in your time at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

Maybe not “surprising” but the thing that may not be obvious to outsiders: OSTP’s budget is tiny compared to other Executive Branch agencies (like where I came from previously at NIH). The work we accomplish in this office is solely by forming partnerships and collaborations with others across the government. We are not typically the rowers of the boat, but we can be the steerer or navigator. (Is the term coxswain? I have never been on a crew team obviously.)

  1. Was it hard making the transition from research to advocacy and now policy?

Honestly I feel like my training in research set me up well for the jobs I’ve had in policy. There is often not someone telling you exactly how to do something – you have to do the work yourself to search the literature, talk to other people, find collaborators, and keep at it. And the skills that you hone in research – from keeping an organized lab notebook the whole way through to writing scientific papers – are some of the same skills you need in government. 

  1. At a time when so many people seem so skeptical of science how do you get your message out.

We have to meet people where they are. As a government official, I have great respect for messages that come from experts within the government – but that is not the only way the message should be getting out. Scientists and other experts within communities should also be spokespeople for science. I would urge scientists at every level – whether you are a citizen scientist, a medical doctor, a PhD student, or some other kind of expert – to engage with their communities and put the work in to understand how to effectively communicate at levels beyond just speaking to your colleagues.

  1. One of the issues that so many of us, including here at CIRM, are working on is improving our performance in diversity, equity and inclusion. How big an issue is that for you and your colleagues at OSTP and what are you doing to try and address it.

The mission of our office is to “maximize the benefits of science and technology to advance health, prosperity, security, environmental quality, and justice for all Americans.” Those final two words are key: “all Americans.” It is the policy of this Office and our Administration that it is not okay for the benefits of science & technology to only reach a select few – who can afford it or who live in a certain zip code or who know the right people. 

This takes different forms depending on what kind of S&T work we are talking about, but I will give you an example from my own work. I have been leading an effort that aims to explore and act upon how digital health care delivery technologies can be used to increase access to healthcare in community-based health settings. We know that these cutting edge technologies are most likely to get to people who, for example, get their care at academic medical centers, or who have primo health insurance plans, or who are already tech savvy. We feel that as these technologies continue to grow within the healthcare system, that it is an imperative to ensure that they are accessible to practitioners and patients at community health centers, or to people who may not be tech geeks, or that they can be interoperable with the systems used by community health workers.

  1. During a time of Covid and now Monkeypox, what’s it like to have a front row seat and watch how government responds to public health emergencies.

My colleagues who work on outbreaks and pandemic responses are some of the most dedicated public servants I know. They will be the first to admit that we are continually learning and integrating new tools and technologies into our toolbox, and that is a constant effort. Emergent issues like outbreaks force decisions when there may not be a lot of information – that is a hard job.  

  1. I’ve always felt that DC would be a fun place to live and work (except during the height of summer!) what do you most like about it.

DC is a city full of people who care deeply (almost to a pathological extent) about the work they do and how to make the world a better place. There’s also incredible diversity here – which means a variety of viewpoints, languages, and food! I love that.

Jackie is not just a good writer. She’s also a great speaker. Here’s a clip of her responding to our Elevator Challenge many years ago, when she was still a fledgling researcher. Her explanation of what she does, is a master class in turning a complex subject into something easy to understand.

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