By Jamie Bence • January 29, 2011•Writers in Residence, Politics and Government
This month's column features Lisa Kaeser, who currently serves as a senior program analyst in the Office of Program and Public Liaison at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institutes of Health, HHS. She works as a liaison between the NICHD’s leadership and its many constituencies, which include Congress, the scientific and research advocacy communities, and the public. Prior to joining the NICHD over ten years ago, Ms. Kaeser worked for over a decade in women’s health research and policy issues at The Alan Guttmacher Institute, and before that for three years on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant to Rep. Jim Moody (D-WI). In her other life, she has been a health counselor at the Washington Free Clinic, and is currently active as a certified parent educator and as a health education teacher for eighth grade students. She has a law degree from Vermont Law School and did her undergraduate work at Dartmouth College.
What factors influenced your decision to attend law school? I'd always had a dual interest in science and literature. Originally I had planned to be an oceanographer, but plans change. Luckily, I attended a school which had broad liberal arts offerings, which allowed me to choose plan B. I ended up majoring in English and Drama, and I decided that the next logical step was law school. I loved New England, and I wanted to stay there, so I chose to attend Vermont Law School.
What activities or coursework did you undertake in law school that led your to your career path? One of the things I loved about attending Vermont Law School was the environmental law offerings. I took several of these courses, including population law, which was a very new and exciting field at that time. Second year, I participated in the legislative clinic. We drove up to the capitol of Montpelier two days a week to work in the legislative counsel’s office. I was assigned to the Natural Resources Committee, where I had the opportunity to draft legislation, and learned about the legislative process and language. It's different because, like other areas of law, the language often doesn't mean the same thing as in plain English. This was a valuable learning experience for me. Third year, I worked in the school’s legal services clinic, and that was also fabulous. We handled several cases each, and the clinic let me start a guardian ad litem program for the middle of Vermont. I had the opportunity to go to court and represent kids, which was great.
What were your goals when you graduated? Did you make any pivotal decisions right away? I wanted to stay in New England, working in legal services because of my clinic experience. However, the year I graduated, the Reagan administration shut down about one-third of the legal aid offices across the country. Needless to say, there was a lot of competition for the jobs that were left. So I had to come up with another plan.
A few of my friends were moving down to DC, and I thought maybe the legislative experience would be helpful. I moved to DC and did an internship, until I was fortunate enough to get a job as a legislative assistant with Representative Jim Moody, a congressman who had just been elected from my hometown of Milwaukee. Having a law degree, especially the legislative clinic, helped to get in the door and be interviewed for that job. That was what really opened all the doors for me in Washington. Knowing how to write legislative language was critical - not to mention the ability to create arguments, while shooting down your opponent's arguments. You have to be able to develop policy positions and craft speeches and statements for your boss about those positions.
What was your experience on the Hill? My boss was a prominent proponent of population issues. So, ironically, the fact that I had taken population law in law school was hugely helpful. In a personal office, instead of on a committee, you have to cover a million issues. It's a mile wide and an inch deep. That part can be very frustrating for someone who is trained as a lawyer. We were working well into the night on a routine basis. But it was a great stepping stone, and some of my best friends are still the people who were part of Rep. Moody’s staff. It's not necessarily something I'd recommend for someone who has a family.
So where did you go next? The next place I worked was the Guttmacher Institute, in its policy office in D.C. We were involved in family planning, maternal and child health, and reproductive rights. I was there for 13 years. I did some research, writing, and legislative work. In the meantime, I had two children, and honestly, it became very difficult to do the job that I had expected of myself part-time. I wanted to stay working, but I didn't feel that I was giving the home life enough attention.
What brought you to NIH? One of my issue areas at the Guttmacher Institute was contraceptive research and development. I had come to know the director of the NICHD, Dr. Duane Alexander, very well. When it came time to think about leaving Guttmacher, I asked for an informational interview. I told him I was aware that he had a legislative person already, but if he heard hear of similar positions in any of the other NIH institutes, please consider me. He basically asked if I had talked to anyone else, and from there I had the job.
How did you balance your career with having a family? Dr. Alexander asked if I was looking for full-time or part-time, and I sheepishly said “part time.” He said “good for you -- you're doing what you need to do at this point in your life.” I couldn't have asked for anything better. If you have the right internal boss you can make a federal position work well for you. Federal government policy allows for telecommuting, part-time, etc. I had to take a job that was not supervisory, but it is an interesting job that changes every day – I am never bored! I do some legislative work (figuring how a new bill or law will affect our research), and ended up being assigned to a whole range of other projects as I got to know the institute better. For example, I worked with our scientific officers to help write the NIH Down Syndrome Research Plan.
About a year ago, I went back to full-time. My kids are both older now. It is still challenging because I occasionally have to leave and pick up my one of my children from a sports practice, then come back to work. You have to make some accommodations. All moms and dads have to do that.
What exactly does your current position entail? Working in the federal government, we answer questions from members of Congress who run the spectrum of political ideology. We give everyone the same information, and it's all based on science. I clearly still use the legislative background, but now it's a question of explaining to Congress and outside organizations interested in our work the impact of any legislative language on the scientific research. Conversely, I have to explain the legislative language to the scientists. This brings together my scientific background and legislative experience.
Every year, the NIH director testifies before the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. It's a huge challenge because he has to be able to answer any question on any issue that might come up for a $31 billion per year agency. It's hard to even convey how much work that is. We just came to an agreement on a list of topics that we will prepare for this year. In addition, all institute directors (there are 27 at NIH) have to submit separate statements for the congressional record. As the appropriations process goes on, directives are issued on how the congressional committees want each agency to spend their money. Last year, I had 30 such directives to respond to.
What is a typical day like for you? In a typical day or week, I will meet for various reasons with different scientific program staff. I will also meet with outside organizations, as the public liaison. I try to work with our program scientists to connect them with these groups. Some scientists are great about explaining their research and work to the outside public. I work with the organizations to find out what they hear about, and I work with the scientists to make a presentation that will get their attention. I try to find out if these organizations are going to recommend an idea for a bill to Capitol Hill, and try to educate the staff members if it will affect the NIH.
In a typical week, one of my jobs is to make sure that national organizations and their members are aware of what research is being supported by the NICHD. I also write a weekly legislative report for our entire staff, and work with the other agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services, and others, like the Department of Justice. Members of Congress will always introduce us to their constituents who have ideas as well, and I often go to Capitol Hill with NICHD’s director or other scientists to brief the members of Congress and their staff.
What are your goals for the future? There are a lot of things I would like to do with my current office that I don't have the staff to do right now. I'd like to help more people understand the research we are doing because I think it's so important. There's literally dozens of outside national organizations that are interested in our work and I'd like to be able to communicate with their members in different ways. There are a lot of ways that I want to get the word out more on research, for example, the importance of participation in clinical trials. That's a major goal for me in the next few years.
What advice would you have for law students who want to pursue a career like yours? I found that the more practical experience I could get in law school, the better. Obviously you have to prepare for the bar exam, but the practical experience is what you will need in the real world. I had a tough time when I first got to law school. My English/Creative Writing background didn't always serve me well in law school – most of the professors didn't appreciate literary references! Focus on writing, focus on creating rock solid arguments, and this will serve you extremely well if you go into policy or advocacy later on. For example, NICHD publishes announcements soliciting research that we are interested in supporting, and communicating that clearly to the scientific community without legalese is a key to getting great applications.
On the work and family front, I think a lot of young people expect the world right away in their first job. That isn't real life. You have to pay your dues first, especially if you're passionate about something -- you don't always get to start off being the director. We get a lot of interns and other smart people who have done really well in school and expect to take over. Being willing to pay your dues is helpful, and it pays a benefit later in that it makes bosses much more willing to work with you on work and family issues. They have to know you're committed first, though.
A very special thanks to Elizabeth Holland for her assistance in arranging this interview.