Combining Science and Policy

Kathleen Danskin’s work at GAP Solutions, Inc., is helping to get disaster-stricken communities back up on their feet. Her role – supporting the Science Preparedness program for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response (ASPR) – serves the health needs of people recovering from ruin.

“Science Preparedness encourages researchers, academic institutions, and research funders to be ready to conduct research during, or in the aftermath of, a disaster so that communities have information on which to base important decisions about protecting health as the community responds and recovers,” she said.

It’s a dream job that’s a bit of a stretch from Danskin’s original vision for her working life.

“I thought I wanted to be a research scientist,” she said.

Danskin was always a fan of science – microbiology and infectious diseases especially – but as she soldiered through her undergraduate coursework, she started to think more and more about the public health and policy side of things. When she graduated in 2009 with a B.S. in Biology, the job market bleak and her practical experience scant, she opted for grad school over pursuing a job that would require a lab coat.

That’s how she came to be enrolled in George Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government, pursuing a master’s degree in biodefense.

“I wanted a program that was going to give me the specific topical knowledge and connections that would help me to get a job,” said Danskin, who was accepted into several graduate programs. “I deliberately chose George Mason because of the structure of the program, which would allow me to gain work experience while earning my degree, and because of the prospect of interacting with other students who were currently working in the biosecurity field.”

It was a decision that would allow her to explore her academic interests and change her professional trajectory. A classmate turned her on to an internship program at HHS, which landed her a seat in ASPR’s Division of Biosafety, Biosecurity, and Countering Biologic Threats. While working on policy relating to nonproliferation during the day, she learned about political science, science and technology studies (STS), and public administration at night.

“I think one of the strengths of the biodefense program is how accommodating it is to working professionals” she said. “It allows students to gain work experience while completing their degrees so they can graduate with both a credential and some practical experience.”

Danskin’s master’s degree quest ultimately formed the foundation for her current work and aspirations. Her efforts with ASPR have contributed to numerous critical projects, and she is presently pursuing a PhD in STS.

“The connections I made at GMU and my status as a student helped me to get that first internship, which is the basis for everything I’ve done since,” she said, adding of her PhD studies, “[It] is a path that I probably would not have gone down if it were not for the classes that I had taken at Mason.”