Alumni Profiles Series: Louis D'Amico
Louis D’Amico, who studied developmental biology and insect physiology with Dr. Fred Nijhout after receiving his B.A. in Biology from Kenyon College, graduated from Duke with a Ph.D. in Biology in 2004. After working at Northeastern University and with a small biotech company, he received a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship at the Environmental Protection Agency, and ultimately joined the Agency as a federal employee in 2011. Dr. D’Amico is currently the Senior Science Advisor to the Office of Research and Development Immediate Office, including the Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator for Science and EPA Science Advisor. He lives with his wife, Amy, in northern Virginia.
What has your career path entailed since graduation?
After graduation I spent a year as a visiting scholar at Duke writing grants to fund my postdoctoral work, while also working with Dr. Jacqueline Looney, Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Programs and Associate Vice Provost for Academic Diversity. I served as a special projects consultant, helping with graduate student admissions and recruitment, and working to foster a healthy culture for graduate students. I then moved to Boston to serve as a Lecturer and Visiting Scientist at Northeastern University, teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in the Biology department. There, I continued to write grants to fund a postdoc, but at the same time I realized teaching was not captivating me the way I had thought it would.
After a year at Northeastern, I was offered a postdoctoral position with a small biotech company named Phylonix Pharmaceuticals. Phylonix was primarily a contract research organization (CRO) doing projects for pharmaceutical companies, screening potential compounds for toxicity by using zebrafish as a model. I was not a toxicologist by training, but my background in developmental biology was something that appealed to the company. At that time, I liked the idea of working in a different environment and seeing what life was like in industry. My experience was really a blend of industry and academic work – we worked with clients to evaluate the toxicity of their test compounds, but we also wrote grants, publications and attended conferences. Client-based projects were fast-paced and deadline-driven, unlike academic research which can evolve more fluidly. Between interacting with clients and conducting independent research for Phylonix, it was a lot to keep track of. Sometimes publishing was problematic if your work was directly supporting the company’s development of a patent portfolio.
How did you transition into your work at the EPA?
After 3 years with Phylonix, I applied for a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship. I had long been interested in science policy, so the AAAS fellowship was a great opportunity. The skill sets I developed at Duke and in industry were what I believed gained me an interview. I was fortunate enough to receive a placement as a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the EPA in the Office of Children's Health Protection (OCHP). At OCHP, I worked to ensure that children’s health issues were appropriately addressed in Agency actions and policies. I still got time to write too, contributing to the 3rd edition of the EPA report “America’s Children and the Environment.” In general, working at EPA was very different from previous jobs. Getting comfortable with the fact that every other word out of people’s mouths was an acronym was the first step to settling in! My day-to-day activities consisted of reviewing and commenting on Agency documents, briefing our Office Director on issues involving chemical exposure, toxicity, and children’s health, and staying up-to-date with advances in the field of children’s environmental health. My time as a AAAS fellow was incredible and cemented my desire to work in science policy. I had found a different source of gratification for my work. When I was in academia, I tended to get my energy and enthusiasm from individual student interactions and doing independent research. While you may not get that immediate gratification in a government setting, your potential to have an impact on a national or international level is greater. And for me, helping to ensure that decisions made by the Agency took into consideration and applied the best available science was also gratifying. After completing the AAAS fellowship, I got a federal position in D.C., in the EPA's Office of Research and Development (ORD), working in the National Center for Environmental Assessment in the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) Program.
What is a typical day for a senior science advisor? What are your responsibilities?
The great thing about the position is that there is no typical day. Broadly, I provide scientific expertise, guidance, and policy support to the ORD senior management team. A good chunk of the day is spent in meetings. I spend a fair amount of time reviewing and commenting on ORD products, like reports, white papers, assessments, etc. and provide feedback to the authors. Frequently we’ll be coordinating with colleagues within the Agency or across the Federal government before releasing a report. Periodically we’ll have to respond to congressional inquiries about a variety of topics that are of public interest; if our senior leadership has to testify before Congress, I’ll be involved in the preparations for that too. One other cool project I’m working on is thinking about the anticipatory research needs for EPA, and how ORD can strategically position itself to utilize and respond to emerging scientific advances in environmental and human health.
What is your favorite thing about your current career, and what has been the most challenging thing about it?
My favorite thing is the variety of topics that I get to think through and contribute to in ORD. Moving from topics like the potential health risks of tire crumb rubber, to the latest data on chemicals of emerging concern, to advancing the ways we conduct risk assessment, to nutrient issues and harmful algal blooms – it all keeps the job interesting! At the same time, the breadth of topics is the most rewarding and also the most challenging. Another challenge is the tight timelines. Everything tends to come due on very short deadlines. Overall, I’ve been surprised and happy to make what I hope are valuable contributions on a variety of national and international issues.
What advice would you give to students who want to go into government policy and/or research?
I think careers in science policy or research in the federal government can be enormously rewarding. Fellowships and postdocs are ideal times to see if you’re a fit because they give you a one to five year experience to figure out if working in government is what you want to do. Depending on placement, AAAS S&T Policy fellowships provide first-hand experience to learn about federal policymaking and contribute your technical and analytical background to inform policy. There are also more traditional postdoctoral positions to work on issues that matter to the agency, either in federal postdocs or through affiliated organizations like ORISE (Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education). I also think it’s critically important to develop soft skills, not just technical skills during your graduate and postdoctoral work. This isn’t something that graduate school tends to emphasize. Communication skills, flexibility, emotional intelligence, and an ability to work with people from a variety of different backgrounds and perspectives are crucial for the type of team-based work that occurs within the government.
Any more general career advice you’d like to give?
Always be open to new experiences. If someone comes to you with an offer, even if you’re not totally sure of your abilities, you might consider trusting their reasoning and be open to making the transition to something outside your area of expertise. There isn’t much of a technical linkage between my graduate work in insect endocrinology to working in industry doing zebrafish toxicity testing, to jumping again to the EPA to look at children’s health and do risk assessment. But I was really fortunate to develop the skill sets that I most needed to be successful in these careers at Duke. It wasn’t the benchwork or technical skills that I used every day in the lab, but the ability to think critically and to distill large volumes of information into the most important points for decision-makers. I’m indebted to Duke Biology, and Fred Nijhout in particular, for a graduate education experience that really honed those skills.
What are your favorite Duke memories?
It probably sounds cliché, but besides being in a fantastic lab with great labmates and potlucks, my favorite memories were associated with Duke basketball. I co-led the Graduate Student campout one year and was a line usher for a few years after that. Campout is a great melting pot – it’s one of the best events to meet people across the entire school. For me, it was important to meet other graduate and professional students, because life within a single department can get a little stale, and I wanted to meet different personalities and viewpoints. Through organizing campout, I learned how to work with a team of different people to get things done, and this has been an invaluable skill across my career.
Ph.D. student, Environment
Anna is a fifth-year PhD student advised by Dan Richter in the Nicholas School of the Environment. Her dissertation is on the persistent legacies of land use on soil biogeochemistry, ranging from forested floodplains to the streets of Durham. Anna is passionate about the intersection of soil and human health, science policy, and live storytelling.