“I loved working in biotech in Boston and thinking about how to use biotech to help the economy, especially in the area of climate change. But I began wondering how I could make the most impact outside the lab,” said Rice University bioengineering alumna Georgia Lagoudas ’12.
After completing her Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) and a congressional fellowship in the office of Senator Edward Markey, Lagoudas found her sweet spot as a senior advisor for biotechnology and bioeconomy in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
“Scientists have much to contribute,” said Lagoudas. “Data-driven policymaking is where I realized I could create an impact – not just providing metrics about an issue but also sharing data about societal behavior and how people respond to policy. That type of data can inform decisions on what problems to tackle and how to tackle them.”
While working in Markey’s office, she led the writing for three bills introduced in the Senate: one on bioeconomy research and development, one on natural gas blowout prevention, oversight, and liability, and one addressing health impacts due to extreme heat. She also worked on air pollution and COVID-19 responses.
“Although I am proud of all that work, I found it is really, really hard to make in an impact in Congress,” said Lagoudas. “It often feels like a chaotic process, due to the function and structure of the House and Senate. But it is important to have engineers and scientists represented in the process and I found two things that helped me move specific issues forward.
“One, identify the most important problems and prioritize them. The issues that will rise to the level of policy consideration are those that the public cares about. Two, create concrete policy solutions – not at the 10,000-foot view but with specific things we can do to actually solve the problem.”
Her science and engineering background and her Ph.D. training all help Lagoudas identify, study, and distill the most important aspects of data and issues for her assignments. But it is her communication skills and her conflict resolution training that most significantly contribute to her success.
She said, “I might be working on policy, but at the end of the day my job is communicating what I have learned. Each of my highest priorities will require writing documentation with clear and persuasive language on why these issues require attention. ”
Lagoudas attributes her engagement strategies to skills learned at Rice and MIT. At Rice, she strengthened her communication skills with the guidance of Tracy Volz during Lagoudas’ senior design project. She also served in the student association (SA) and was elected president.
She said, “As a freshman at Rice, I never envisioned myself leading a group of peers. I loved math and science and felt I had found my niche. But I kept being drawn to the process of identifying student-related issues and wanting to help solve them —first at the residential college level and then with the SA where we dealt with campus-wide projects that often required interacting with the Rice administration.
In one of her first years serving in the SA, a student-owned and student-run entity with a 40-year history was abruptly sold by the university. The sale led to a wide-spread feeling of discontent and frustration among the student body.
“The administration then turned to the SA and asked us to help decide how to spend a few million dollars from the sale. We immediately went into rounds of building consensus about the top priorities across the university for all students. I had my own ideas, but the process enabled us to learn from undergraduate and graduate students alike, from faculty, and from the administration how to best spend those funds – such as lighting for the soccer and ultimate Frisbee fields,” said Lagoudas.
“When I was serving as president of the SA, one of the challenges we faced involved appropriate use of alcohol. The administration said they could ‘do something about it’ but preferred to turn to the SA to help address the issue on a community level. Me and the eleven college presidents said, ‘Yes, we’ll handle this,’ and we worked towards a community-driven solution that was ultimately successful because our peers had buy-in. You can come up with solutions on your own, but to drive them forward you have to get others to consider them, adopt them as their own ideas, and propose solutions.”
That consensus building experience served Lagoudas well in graduate school at MIT, where she helped found a peer-to-peer coaching resource in her department. Lagoudas signed up for a full week of training to become a skilled mediator and communications coach. She specialized in conflict management and helped guide her peers through tense situations that sometimes arise between graduate students and their advisors.
“Conflict resolution training isn’t a skill most grad students think they want or ought to learn but it has helped me in all my relationships,” said Lagoudas. “In my toolbox, I now have a depth and richness of experience in knowing how to deal with people.
“One of the hardest things to learn in the mediation training was how to actually put yourself in others’ shoes. The mediator’s job isn’t to solve problems; our role is to listen and to ask open ended questions. This has been particularly useful in my approach to policy making. It’s important to remember everyone has distinct opinions and to recognize your perspective isn’t the only one.”
Perspective is influenced by a variety of sources and relationships but Lagoudas said her work in the Senate also revealed the impact of the media on decision making. It gave her a new appreciation for the individuals working solely and as a group to help elevate attention about issues through news and social media.
“My new appreciation for the media also reinforces the importance of clear communication. I am a Ph.D. trained bioengineer working at the White House on 10 different policy topics, none of which are related to my degree. What has led me here is my strong communication skills and my ability lead and engage others in ideas,” said Lagoudas.
“The skills to communicate effectively with people and drive executive actions can take you anywhere.”