By CHARLES ANZALONE
Published April 13, 2023
A senior-level geology PhD student whose drive to help communities disproportionately affected by climate change has bloomed into a passion for connecting scientists and policymakers is UB’s most recent winner of the Congressional Science Fellowship.
Devon Gorbey will work as a staff member in the office of a member of Congress or on a congressional committee in Washington, D.C., as a science policy adviser.
The honor and selection were “a massive win,” according to Department of Geology researchers.
Gorbey is a recipient of the Congressional Science Fellowship funded by the American Geophysical Union (AGU), where she will work on climate and environmental policy issues for a year.
The AGU is one of 30 professional societies that sponsors a Congressional Science Fellow each year. The fellowship is then administered under the American Association for the Advancement of Science Congressional Science Fellowship program. Gorbey is the first UB student to win the award presented by the American Geophysical Union.
Gorbey says her research to date studies the climate and ecological history of the Canadian Arctic.
“The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the world in response to climate change, and there is a lot of uncertainty about what the Arctic will look like over the next several decades,” she explains.
“I study the molecular composition of plant matter preserved in lake mud that spans the past 200,000 years, including some time intervals that were warmer than the present. By studying how the Arctic climate system changed during ancient warm periods, we hope to better understand the processes that are occurring in the present to reduce some of the uncertainty surrounding the future, which may help communities build stronger climate resilience.”
Gorbey says she has always been interested in government and policy, but was “inspired to engage policymakers” after observing a lag between science and policy.
“This lag became apparent to me after my first field season in the Arctic, and even more so during the pandemic,” she says. “Scientists were publishing so much information in scientific journals but largely leaving the interpretation of their results and conclusions to the media or the general public without expertise in the field. We saw so much disinformation and distrust in science, which is not dissimilar from conversations about climate change.”
Gorbey says that to address climate change, scientists need to prioritize communicating the research to a general audience and designing collaborative, interdisciplinary research questions that specifically fit the needs of the community.
Unfortunately, these are topics that aren’t typically covered in a graduate school curriculum, according to Gorbey. Co-founder of UB’s Science and Health Policy Club, Gorbey hopes to provide a space for graduate students across the university to connect with one another and start building those skills.
“I am really excited to develop my science communication skills during my fellowship year, and hope to make bridging the gap between scientists and policymakers a focus of my career.”
Gorbey and her work have won numerous accolades and praise from her Department of Geology advisers and fellow researchers.
“Devon has outstanding potential to meet her goal of pursuing a career in science policy and to become a leader in this field,” says Elizabeth K. Thomas, associate professor in the Department of Geology. Thomas is Gorbey’s research adviser and recommended her for the AGU fellowship.
“She has made it a priority not only to lower barriers to access science, but also to provide opportunities for everyone, particularly underrepresented groups, to connect the dots and use science to shape policy,” Thomas says. “For example, Devon volunteers as a climate ambassador for Erie County, educating the public about how Western New York will be impacted by climate change, and actions the public can take to curb those impacts.”
In this role, Gorbey is actively providing the public with the motivation and the tools to shape Erie County climate policy, Thomas says.
“Devon clearly enjoys and excels at science communication, and she is passionate about extending that to the policy realm,” she says.
Thomas also praises Gorbey for the success she’s had funding her research via independent graduate research grants.
“For example, her proposal to the Geological Society of America (GSA) Graduate Student Research Grant fund was honored with an outstanding mention as one of the Top 10 proposals submitted in 2021, a year when the GSA received double the usual number of applications, as students were unable to apply the previous year due to the pandemic,” says Thomas.
“Devon’s ability to write well and to manage several tasks at once will be critical as she pursues her goal of a career in science policy.”