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A year in the legislature: Alum keeps CA lawmakers informed through fellowship

Sydney Chamberlin earned her PhD in physics from UWM in 2016. She was part of the team that helped identify gravitational waves, a discovery that rocked the astronomical world. Her expertise lies in black holes and pulsars.

She had no idea what Quagga mussels were when she started working in the California legislature.

“I remember going into the first week, someone told me they needed me to make a fact sheet about Quagga mussels. I was like, what’s a Quagga mussel? I’d never heard of that,” Chamberlin recalled with a laugh.

She learned quickly. Chamberlin has spent the past year working in California’s state government as a fellow with the California Council on Science and Technology. CCST is a non-partisan nonprofit that was created in 1988 at the request of the state legislature. The organization advises lawmakers and provides expert opinions and analysis about certain scientific issues so legislators can make informed decisions about policy.

“For example, this year they’ve had several expert briefings on wildfires,” Chamberlin said.

Each year, CCST recruits 10 fellows, all with doctoral degrees in the sciences, to serve for a year in the legislature. Chamberlin and her cohort became committee consultants, each assigned to a different committee in the legislature where they both analyzed proposed legislation as well as penned their own bills for consideration.

Chamberlin was assigned to the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water. The committee deals with matters concerning fish, wildlife, forest management, and water.

With her PhD in astrophysics, Chamberlin was admittedly outside of her wheelhouse.

“When CCST places you in a role in the legislature, it’s not about your scientific training at all. It’s completely about personality fit and whether you fit into the culture of the office,” she said. “You’re not necessarily going to work on science that’s tied to your degree. I certainly knew that was going to be the case for me. Nobody legislates about gravitational waves or black holes right now.”

UWM physics alum Sydney Chamberlin crosses one of Senator Henry Stern’s bills on the Senate desk. She crossed two additional bills for the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water. Photo courtesy of California Council on Science and Technology.

To prepare for their roles, Chamberlin and the other fellows underwent a month-long “policy bootcamp” where they learned the finer points of California’s government, the current political climate, the role of legislative staffers, and other essential information.

Then came the hard work.

“My job was to do research on all of these proposed bills and try to decide if it’s a sound policy idea,” Chamberlin said. “Does it solve the problem it sets out to solve? Are there unintended consequences? What does the science say? Then I would prepare a written document called a bill analysis, which is a public-facing document that the legislators and their staff can use to be informed about the issue.”

That’s where she put her UWM degree to use. As a PhD student, Chamberlin was used to analyzing mounds of data and conducting thorough research. She used the same skills to learn about the science surrounding bills that addressed water permitting and animal management.

“I felt really proud about having worked on those bills, basically shepherding them through the legislative process so they were able to be signed into law by the governor.”

Along the way, she learned to navigate the interests of various lobbying groups and concerned citizens. For instance, one bill that crossed her desk concerned the use of rodenticides, poisons used for controlling small pests like mice and rats. She took meetings from exterminators and environmental groups alike as she researched the issue.

In addition, she crafted the language on several pieces of legislation.

“I actually helped write the language for a couple of bills that have been signed into law, one of which streamlines the water permitting process here in California. The other bill extends environmental protections for an invasive species program,” Chamberlin said. “I felt really proud about having worked on those bills, basically shepherding them through the legislative process so they were able to be signed into law by the governor.”

Chamberlin has always been interested in politics and government. She grew up in a politically vocal family in Salt Lake City, Utah, and volunteered for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012. When she learned about the opportunity to become a CCST fellow, Chamberlin jumped at the chance to apply.

Now that her year of service has come to an end, Chamberlin has embarked on a new career journey – this time as a Climate Policy Associate with The Nature Conservancy, a large environmental conservation group.

“I’m so happy to have landed here,” she said. “I really owe the fellowship for this opportunity I have now.”

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science