University of Massachusetts Amherst

Search Google Appliance


Dr. Tomboulian Goes to Washington

Briana Tomboulian

Dr. Briana Tomboulian, a NASA Graduate Research Fellow who earned her Ph.D. from the UMass Amherst Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department in June, has been chosen by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) to serve as the 2014-2015 ASME Congressional Fellow. The goal of ASME Congressional Fellows is to advise legislators on key science and technology issues that are often beyond the grasp of non-scientists. According to ASME, for more than 40 years Congressional Fellows have filled this knowledge gap by serving as key advisors to federal policy makers on energy, infrastructure, education, national security, technology development, and other critical national and international issues, which require general technical proficiency and specific mechanical engineering expertise.

As ASME has explained about its Congressional Fellowship program, “Public policy matters. It affects all aspects of our lives. It includes the quality of our environment, the safety of our food, the operation of our businesses, and the education of our children. Yet, few elected officials have technical or scientific backgrounds. As public policy deals with technological issues of increasing complexity, it is urgent that it be based upon sound scientific principles.”

ASME added that Federal legislators have identified a gap in the type of information Congress receives on science and technology matters. It is not a lack of information that is the problem. Rather, it is difficult for decision-makers to understand the information and to gauge the validity, credibility, and usefulness of the large amounts of information and advice received on a daily basis from various constituents, stakeholders, and interest groups.

Since 1973, ASME has sponsored the Congressional Fellowship program to provide an opportunity for ASME members to work with the U.S. Congress. As federal legislation becomes increasingly technical, the need for engineering expertise is essential. Fellows participate directly in the lawmaking process and learn how the federal government operates. In addition, Congress is provided with the necessary engineering expertise and, at the end of the fellowship year, the fellow has gained an in-depth knowledge of Congressional decision-making processes.

Once chosen as a Congressional Fellow, an ASME member selects his or her Congressional assignment through interviews with Congressional offices, with assistance from the ASME government relations staff, and with reference to the issues identified in the public policy agenda of ASME.

The ASME program fits perfectly into Tomboulian’s professional agenda. “How does an engineer with a strong social and environmental conscience fulfill a desire to participate in creating positive change?” she wrote in her Congressional Fellowship Statement of Interest. “For me, it requires stepping out of the lab and into a role as a conduit between scientists and policymakers. Science and technology can open doors to life-changing advances, but without government backing, some of these important scientific results cannot be implemented. The scientific community needs passionate liaisons to bring their findings to the public.”

Tomboulian added that “I am a scientist who enjoys technical work but also cares about the big picture. As a global thinker, my work endeavors are motivated by a desire to help our environment and society. The Congressional Fellowship would afford me the opportunity to explore how scientists can fit into the world of policy and where we can make a difference.”

She also noted that the fellowship is a prime opportunity for her as a “globally minded” engineer to use her technical education to benefit society.

“Raised in a family of passionate educators and political advocates, I’ve been inspired to work hard for what I believe in. Having demonstrated technical ability through my doctoral work in mechanical engineering, I am now interested in participating in the public policy arena. I believe a fulfilling career will include advocacy and educational roles. First-hand experience with the legislative process would be a valuable first step on a career path toward a position as a science advisor for a Congressional member or Federal agency.”

In fact, Tomboulian’s past accomplishments demonstrate her ability, quite literally, to think globally and act universally. Beginning in 2011 when she was a graduate student, Tomboulian was awarded a highly prestigious fellowship from NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist. Her NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship of $66,000 per year supported her laboratory research on a “Damage-Tolerant, Lightweight, High-Temperature Radiator for Nuclear Powered Spacecraft.”

As she explained at the time, better radiators enable the high speed and high power necessary for the next generation of planetary probes. As NASA stated about its Space Technology Research Fellowships, “The goal is to provide the nation with a pipeline of highly skilled engineers and technologists to improve America's technological competitiveness. NASA Space Technology Fellows will perform innovative space technology research while building the skills necessary to become future technological leaders.”

While doing her graduate research, Tomboulian also did a stint in Washington giving scientific briefings on engineering issues. In 2011, she served as a student panelist for a briefing on Capitol Hill entitled “Students Bringing Space Research Down to Earth.” The program, sponsored by the American Society for Gravitational and Space Biology and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, was intended to brief Congressional aides on the kind of space research being done by students. (June 2014)