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Recent Alumna Bridges the Gap in Science Policy

June 12, 2017

Student-athlete Katie Kowal BA ’17, winner of Lewis & Clark’s highest academic honor—the Rena Ratte Award—earned degrees in both physics and political science. As the Boulder, Colorado, native heads off to begin a two-year fellowship at the Science and Technology Policy Institute, Katie shares some of her favorite and formative Lewis & Clark memories.

Tell us a bit about your experience at Lewis & Clark.

When I came to Lewis & Clark, I was ambitious, but I felt lost in terms of where my drive would lead. L&C takes its commitment to explore very seriously, and I had the opportunity to further delve into my interests and values. I double majored in physics and political science, studied abroad my junior year in the Dominican Republic, and continued to run track and field as a varsity athlete.

Throughout these experiences I came into contact with peers and professors who encouraged me to leave my comfort zone, which lead me to take greater risks and develop a sense of purpose regarding who I wanted to be in the world. Lewis & Clark challenged me to grow up, but it was a safe place for me to try new experiences and have the courage to clarify my values.

What drew you to your areas of expertise?

What drew me to both physics and political science was how they challenged my analytic abilities. Each discipline emphasizes the value of objectively tackling a problem by utilizing logic to break down causal relationships.

During my first and second year at Lewis & Clark I was also an educator for the Community Engagement and Leadership in Science (CELS) afterschool program, which is organized by Lewis & Clark’s Graduate School of Education and Counseling. I worked with students to develop community-based science projects, which enabled them to use quantitative methods to answer questions they had about their surroundings.

This past summer I also signed on to help develop and lead Xplore in its pilot year. Xplore is a new student trip for first-generation college students interested in pursuing STEM majors. I ran this program with a team, and our focus was to make math and science more approachable and community-oriented. From my experiences as a learner and a teacher, I grew determined to make math and science more accessible. These disciplines fostered my own empowerment, and I wanted others to have the same opportunity.

How has your experience at Lewis & Clark shaped your plans for the future? Can you tell us a bit more about what you’re planning to do next?

At L&C I learned a variety of critical thinking skills that gave me the ability to question who I am as a person, and what my place is in the world. This process made me committed to pursue a career that helps other people. No matter what job I find myself in, I want to empower others to think for themselves.

In July, I begin a two-year fellowship in science policy. I will be working in Washington, D.C., at the Science and Technology Policy Institute. This institute helps bridge the gap between research that is done in the labs and policy makers who can utilize this knowledge for public benefit.

Lewis & Clark factored heavily into why I chose this job because I learned how much research depends on communication to be useful.

You won the Rena Ratte Award, the highest academic award given at Lewis & Clark. What was your reaction when you heard you’d been named?

It humbled me because of its emphasis on academic rigor. I am one of many top students at Lewis & Clark pursuing fascinating research. Many people have found it curious why I pursued a double major in such disparate disciplines. I was honored that several of my professors thought this path had enough value to be worthy of this award.

You also won the inaugural Shannon T. O’Leary award, which was created just this year to honor an exemplary physics professor and friend who was taken from us suddenly.

That was completely overwhelming. Shannon was one of my closest personal mentors, and I owe her a tremendous debt for helping me grow as a student, a woman, and a leader. My own accomplishments are due in huge part to Shannon’s belief in me. If I can continue to advocate for others in the same way that she supported me, that will be the beginning of paying tribute to how incredible she was.

Remarkably, you also won the AAUW (American Association of University Women) award, given annually to a senior woman of outstanding scholarship, character, personality, contributions to campus and community life, and potential for future achievement.  

The AAUW award is my proudest achievement. This is partially because this was one of Shannon’s favorite awards. When she was on the awards committee for AAUW, she took her role very seriously. I think this is probably because it stands for some of her most cherished values: leadership and community involvement. I also value these commitments, and during my time at L&C I have strived to give back to a group of people who have given me so much. For people to have recognized my efforts means the world to me, and I hope Shannon is proud of me even if she is not with us.

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