More Than Just a Scientist: My Journey Weaving Science and Politics

As an international development professional prior to starting my PhD, I saw increasingly how environmental change was driving foreign assistance. Over the course of nearly a decade in international development, I saw more and more funding calls incorporating an element of “resiliency” and “sustainability” into their project goals. However, I found myself increasingly interested in the why rather than the how: why these changes were happening fascinated me more than trying to find ways to adapt to them. 

I saw this as a call to action to change my career to focus on the science behind climate change. In 2017, I packed up my life into my Subaru and drove from Washington, DC to Fairbanks, Alaska to start my PhD in natural resources and sustainability at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. 

I study cryospheric hazards, specifically glacial lake outburst floods and hazardous sea ice events and their impacts on local communities. I chose to base my work in the most rapidly warming U.S. state, Alaska, and in the Arctic in general. The goal of my work is to help equip communities to respond to dangerous ice-related events. From emergency responders, to electrical companies, to tour operators, to homeowners, to interested citizens like you and me, a variety of people and agencies need scientific information to make decisions to prepare for and respond to these hazardous events. My work is applied and human-focused, which also means it is inherently political. Science serves as a tool, rather the main driver of my research.

My work is applied and human-focused, which also means it is inherently political.

I started my PhD when the #MeToo movement was at its height and scientists at my university and across the world were recognizing the challenges female scientists face in the workplace and in the field. Likewise, the conversation about mental health for graduate students was being more openly discussed. Studies have confirmed that up to two-thirds of students suffer from mental health-related problems during their graduate career.

I had my share of challenges over the course of my scientific career. From being told I wasn’t smart enough to be able to solve discrete algorithms: “You’re a woman. Your brain is different, that’s why you can’t understand these concepts” to having my social science research discounted by my physical science peers: “You’re not a real scientist. What’s the highest level of math you taken?” to facing sexual harassment by a high-level official during a networking event that was meant to foster early-career professionals: “Your lipstick is a little smeared. What have you been doing before this meeting?” I often wondered how unique my experience was. “It has to be because of me,” I told myself over and over again. It wasn’t until I took a graduate seminar on “Navigating Interpersonal Dynamics in the Sciences” that I realized I wasn’t the only one who had these experiences. “It’s probably not me,” is now what I tell myself over and over again. 

“It’s probably not me,” is now what I tell myself over and over again. 

One thing about my PhD journey that I am grateful for is how it has allowed me to weave together my social and physical science backgrounds. It also allows me to combine my work and my values, which is essential to me as an INFP-T on the Myers-Briggs scale. I was initially met with some skepticism about the point of my project – “these events don’t really impact that many people.” But I persisted. I believed in my research and more importantly, I saw that it had a direct impact in the communities I worked in. 

Now, as I enter the last year of my PhD, I’m glad I never lost sight of the importance of the social and human dimensions of my work. The National Weather Service here in Alaska has used the data I have collected to help inform new websites they have developed to monitor glacial lake outburst floods in the state. I’ve also worked with a number of other agencies and organizations to conduct trainings on the use of social science processes in scientific research development. I am honored that my work has also been recognized internationally. In January 2019, I was selected as an Arctic Emerging Leader by Arctic Frontiers, a pan-Arctic network linking policy, business, and science.

As I enter the last year of my PhD, I’m glad I never lost sight of the importance of the social and human dimensions of my work.

I have gotten into heated discussions, mostly with other scientists, who say science is apolitical. Objectivity is such an esteemed value within science, yet it is futile to expect any human being to be truly objective. We are inherently subjective. We are a product of our environments, life experiences, and knowledge systems. And knowledge itself is subjective. What we know in the world is through what we have learned and interpreted based on what we know thus far.

Politics needs science. We need facts, information, and knowledge to drive our decisions, particularly during an era when decisions made at all levels will have far-reaching consequences, not just across the world, but also over time. Science also needs politics. Federal and state funding are the main drivers of scientific research in the United States. It is important for scientists to not only show the merit and impact of their work to their governmental funders but to also maintain a dialogue about the research needs they face or expect to become important in the years to come. 

One way I contribute to this dialogue is by participating in science advocacy on Capitol Hill. This September, I was selected to be part of the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) Geoscience Congressional Visit Days, where AGU members, like myself, were trained and offered an opportunity to communicate the necessity of their scientific research with members of Congress and their staffers. I was especially grateful to have the opportunity to represent the needs of my state and the Alaska scientific community in Washington, DC given recent significant state budget cuts to the University of Alaska. Advocating on behalf of science in Alaska has arguably never been more important.

Advocating on behalf of science in Alaska has arguably never been more important.

Politics isn’t dirty and science isn’t stuck in an ivory tower. Politics and science are processes to make “sense” of the convoluted, interconnected, complex worlds they represent, which are tied together in a broader system called Earth. We need more scientists to start acknowledging that humans are a part of the natural world; to study the natural world devoid of the human experience means you are missing a critical player in the natural environment. Likewise, we need more politicians to make use of the public resource scientists provide. Evidence-based decision-making demonstrates transparency, sensibility, and trustworthiness, qualities that are important to constituents.

Complex problems require novel problem solving. It’s time for the dialogue between science and politics to be promoted and bolstered. 

It’s only natural.

Science Rising is a network of partners and advocates coming together for one purpose: to fight for science, justice, and equity in our democracy leading up to the 2020 election. Anyone can participate in Science Rising. Learn more at www.ScienceRising.org.

Dina Abdel-Fattah
Dina Abdel-Fattah

Dina Abdel-Fattah is a natural resources and sustainability PhD candidate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Though she currently calls Alaska home, she has lived in Egypt, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Netherlands, Turkey, Germany, Nepal, and Sweden. When she’s not in work mode, you can find her trail running and cross-country skiing. Follow her work on LinkedIn (linkedin.com/in/dinaabdelfattah/) and Twitter (@Gruene_Partei).

One thought on “More Than Just a Scientist: My Journey Weaving Science and Politics

  1. I loved your article. You touched on many divergent issues that can’t be separated. The world is fortunate to have a woman of your intelligence and sensitivity working on one of our most urgent problems. Science and politics will always need to be seen together. Thanks for helping us become more aware – bravo.

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