June 26, 1998

Researcher tabbed to study nation’s science policies

Researcher tabbed to study nation's science policies

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Dr. Lawrence Kerr is headed for the nation's capitol to study science policies. (Photo by Donna Jones Bailey)

A Vanderbilt University Medical Center basic science researcher is headed for the nation's capitol to investigate the factors that regulate science and health policy.

Lawrence D. Kerr, Ph.D., assistant professor of Microbiology & Immunology and Cell Biology, was recently awarded, along with five others, an R.W. Johnson Health Policy Fellowship in Washington, D.C. In September, Kerr and the others will begin the year-long fellowships with federal lawmakers.

"The program is designed to bring individuals who have an interest in science, education and health to Washington, D.C. to work with national leaders to help understand the factors that regulate science and health policy," said Kerr.

The fellowship is made up of two sections. The first section will consist of three months of classes focusing on policy issues, which will be taught by instructors from the Institute of Medicine.

During this time Kerr will also have the opportunity to meet with cabinet members in the executive branch, Supreme Court Justices, and high-ranking members of Congress to help in the selection of a mentor for the remaining nine months of the fellowship.

"These interviews help us get a feel, on a personal level, what motivates the legislators to think about science policy the way they do and the factors that influence their decisions," said Kerr.

After an extensive interviewing process in November, the fellows are assigned to mentors for the rest of the fellowship. After being assigned, the fellows work very closely with their mentors, sharing their perceptions and experiences with health policy.

The goal is for the fellows to learn what goes into crafting health-related legislation; mentors also benefit from the pairing.

"I really hope to focus on science and health education, because these are the areas where progress is clearly within our grasp," said Kerr.

At VUMC, Kerr is involved in research into the transcription factor NF-kB and also teaches medical and graduate students. He has recently developed a mouse model that mimics an unusual form of NF-kB that might be involved in breast cancer.

"When I began this process the question everyone asked was, 'why would a basic science researcher want to do something like this.' Essentially, I wanted to learn more about the decisions that are made at the federal level that affect basic science researchers at an academic health science center every day," Kerr said.

Many of Kerr¹s colleagues agree that it is important to have someone who understands basic research and knows the pressures that researchers face in securing grants and other forms of research money.

"Larry brings unique strengths to this program," said D. Terence S. Dermody, associate professor of Pediatrics. "When he sits at the table and can articulate the effect these policies have on basic science researchers, it should really have a great deal of impact."

Kerr is the first scholar with a Ph.D. ever to be selected for the fellowship, which typically selects medical doctors, many with law degrees.

"It usually takes four to five years to get into a program like this one, so I am very honored to be part of such a prestigious group," said Kerr.