WASHINGTON — Graduated from Newton Falls High School. An undergrad degree in biology from Marietta College. A master’s from the University of Toledo in biology and a Ph.D. in microbial ecology from the University of New Mexico.
Her first job? Working on climate change, alternative energy and agricultural issues for U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn.
Mahoning Valley native Marcy Gallo envisioned a career in scientific research, in a lab or out in the field, surrounded by instruments, microscopes and computers. But she landed on Capitol Hill, surrounded by politicians, lobbyists and pressure.
Gallo is one of those unique scientists — the kind who can see the complexities of the scientific world, but translate them for the rest of us. The kind who can take the narrow vision of a specific research study and put it into a larger context and tell us what it means for society.
Gallo wrapped up a year-long Congressional Science Fellowship in Lieberman’s office in December 2007 and now serves as a policy associate with The American Geological Institute, which represents 44 geoscientific and professional associations.
Close to action
As a Congressional science fellow, she provided the scientific background for public policy, met with constituents and served as a staff resource for all things science.
The first week in Lieberman’s office, Gallo was reviewing hot issues and upcoming legislation with one of the legislative aides when he said, “You’re going to have the ag policy stuff, too.” And so Gallo became a quick study of ag programs, a rather large responsibility in the Year of the Farm Bill.
“I was really surprised at the diversity of people who were interested in the farm bill,” she said. “It’s about the crops and the people and the food.”
More specifically, Lieberman’s farm bill attention focused on the conservation and nutrition titles of the farm bill, and the addition of specialty crops to farm programs.
And back home in Newton Falls, parents Pam and John Gallo starting tuning in to C-SPAN to catch glimpses of their daughter during committee hearings and briefings.
The big time. As a scientist who has worked on ecological and environmental research, Gallo is most proud of the small role she played in a comprehensive bill Lieberman and Sen. John Warner, R-Va., co-sponsored to address global warming.
The bill, slugged as the Climate Security Act, was the first climate change legislation to make it out of committee and to the full Senate.
“I was there in the room,” Gallo said, adding that the day last December was like a “JFK moment” she will always remember.
“You kind of know you’re a part of something,” she added. “It was really exciting to be in the room.”
Don’t discount staffers
Gallo said the average person would be surprised to learn “how much work the staffer does,” and the impact a legislator’s staffers can have.
The aide formulates a first opinion of an issue or a bill and can convey that interest (or lack of interest) to the legislator.
“They’re definitely a force to be reckoned with.”
But she also said many would be surprised to learn how hard the members of Congress work, too.
“The members are unbelievably scheduled,” she said, with appointments or meetings starting at 9 a.m. and often running into 12-hour days.
It was a high school chemistry teacher who triggered Gallo’s interest in the sciences and she modestly says, “I found I really had a knack for it.”
But two months before her fellowship ended, Gallo realized she wanted to continue to use her science in the public policy world. A job search turned up the position with the American Geological Institute.
Her current efforts include lobbying for more funding for basic geoscience research and the national geomapping program, and to increase awareness of the role science research plays in just about everything.
“Scientists are reluctant to come up here and ask for money,” Gallo said.
It’s not their strength. But it is hers. She’s discovered that bridging the knowledge gap between scientists and the general public, including lawmakers, is her forte.
“I just knew this was the right place to be,” she said of her work in Washington. “I think I can be a more effective scientist here.”
Plus, she admitted, “It’s sort of an addictive place to be.”
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WASHINGTON — Allison Specht looked around the meeting room. There sat J.B. Penn, former USDA undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services and now chief economist at John Deere. And there was Joe Glauber, newly seated chief economist for the USDA.
“I should not be here,” the 26-year-old thought to herself.
But as trade economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington D.C., Specht sat at the table as a peer, as a person with something to offer. And that’s heady stuff for the woman who has a copy of Holstein World on her bedside table.
Working in the nation’s capital is a long way from living on a dairy farm in Tuscarawas County, Ohio, but Specht’s mind is never far from home, where she still owns cows. The walls and shelves of her office are lined with photos of dairy cattle, the home farm and trophies from the show ring.
That farm foundation and the calls to home keep her rooted outside the Beltway, and lets her see the downstream effects of the policy she reviews.
On the phone with her dad, Steve, “we talk cows and bulls.” On the phone with her mom, Michele, who’s the Ohio Farm Bureau organizational director for Tuscarawas County, “we talk constantly about policy.”
As trade economist, Specht analyzes international trade agreements and foreign policies, and also provides a monthly dairy outlook and analysis for the farm organization.
She’s currently studying the Colombian Free Trade Agreement, analyzing some food safety legislation, and preparing responses to the anti-NAFTA barbs thrown by Democratic presidential candidates.
She also travels the country to brief state Farm Bureaus on trade issues.
“I do work on behalf of farmers,” Specht explained of the member-driven policy that directs the national lobbying efforts. “The farmers tell us what they want us to do.”
She draws on her own farm background to keep it real.
“It is quite a different world here,” Specht said. “But I have to remember my parents are on the clock all the time. The people who are farming are farming all the time.”
People are easily intimidated by the political process and life in Washington, Specht said, although she’s found it’s actually a pretty friendly place.
“Everyone’s from somewhere else,” she said, so people are willing to lend a hand because they’ve been there, too.
Still, the process of making laws and public policy is a lot of hard work, Specht said. “I can’t see too much glamor to it.”
And even though she’s seen the inside story, Specht still insists the system works.
“We’re actually in control of our destiny. Laws are actually made by humans.”
“And you can see change,” she added. “One voice really matters, and that opinion can influence change.”
Knowing the ropes
Specht wasn’t a total stranger to D.C. when she took the Farm Bureau job, because she interned two summers with the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service. She also served as a legislative aide to then-U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine.
Specht, who holds a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business and a master’s in ag economics, both from Ohio State University, joined other Buckeye faithful as a member of the local OSU alumni affiliate. She even took to the football field (the Washington Mall) in an alumni flag football team last fall.
And beyond Ohio State, the Ohio legions are strong in Washington, she said.
“The Ohioans really stick together,” she added. “Everyone has an Ohio connection.”
When she’s not preparing briefings or crunching numbers, Specht heads back home as often as she can.
“Going home lets me breathe,” she said.
She also hits the tanbark trail with her show string, including Trealayne OA Genevieve-ET, the reserve junior champion at the Mid-East Summer National Show last August in Columbus. Genevieve, who just freshened, is the daughter of one of Specht’s last 4-H cows.
In fact, talking to Specht you wonder if she’s more dairy farmer than she is economist, and she’ll agree.
“If I can’t be a dairy farmer, I would be doing what I’m doing right now.”
But that doesn’t stop her from admitting, “If I could do my job from Dover, Ohio, I would.”
(Editor Susan Crowell can be reached at 800-837-3419 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)