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Combining Science with Public Policy: Rebecca Benham Vautour Selected for ASPET Washington Fellows Program

October 30, 2015 Print

Rebecca Benham Vautour, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow at McLean’s Laboratory of Genetic Neuropharmacology, has been selected as a 2016 Washington Fellow by the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET).

The program will provide the opportunity for fellows to develop an understanding of how public policy decisions made in Washington help shape and impact science policy, such as funding for the National Institutes of Health and other science agencies. Fellows will also be trained to advocate effectively for biomedical science on Capitol Hill and in their home districts, according to ASPET.

Rebecca Benham Vautour, PhD
Rebecca Benham Vautour, PhD

Benham Vautour was one of only 10 selected from across the country to participate in the program, which received a record number of applicants this year, according to Uwe Rudolph, Dr med, director of the Laboratory of Genetic Neuropharmacology and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

“It is very important to have people who are expert researchers also know how to communicate with policymakers,” he said. “In times of limited federal budgets, advocacy for research in Washington has never been more important. It is an honor for McLean that one of its colleagues will be participating in this program.”

Benham Vautour, who received her BA in neuroscience from Hamilton College and her PhD in pharmacology/neuroscience from Boston University, has been working as a post-doctoral fellow at McLean since 2012. Her research uses pharmacological agents and genetically modified mice to examine the role of GABA-A receptors in depression and its treatment.

“My long-term research goal,” said Benham Vautour, “is to identify a faster-acting antidepressant since current therapeutics require weeks to months of treatment for patients before they become effective. Antidepressants with novel mechanisms of action haven’t been developed in the last half-century. In understanding the role of specific GABA-A receptor subtypes in depression, we hope to identify a novel target for the development of faster-acting and more efficacious antidepressants.”

“I went into research in the neuroscience/pharmacology field to be able to make contributions to the understanding and treatment of neurological and psychiatric disorders,” she said, “but as I progressed, I also became interested in raising awareness about the science policies at issue in my community as well as also reaching broader audiences of government officials and the general public.”

It was the government shutdown in October of 2013, Benham Vautour said, that prompted her to seek out the fellowship. “It was soon after I started my post-doc, and I submitted a grant and it was delayed because the government was shut down. Seeing how this could affect not only my career, but also other academic researchers, as well as the patients suffering from the diseases being studied, was a big motivator. I sought ways to combine my desire to advance biomedical research and my passion for advocacy, and the ASPET Washington Fellows program is an exciting opportunity to do just that.”

Benham Vautour will continue to do post-doctoral work in the lab during her training, which begins in January with a one-time trip to Washington, DC. “I'm looking forward to the trip to learn first-hand about how science policy bills are developed and having the opportunity to speak personally with the offices of Massachusetts senators and representatives about the need for continued support for scientific research,” she said.

“It will also be important to establish relationships in Massachusetts, so I will be talking with researchers at McLean and the broader research community in Boston to let them know what’s going on legislatively, and I will also be writing op-ed pieces for the public. I hope to help facilitate communication between my research colleagues, lawmakers, and the general public about policy-related issues.”

Said Rudolph, “Rebecca has been a strong advocate for the treatment of depression and gets really excited about the possibility of helping others. Through the fellowship she is combining her excellence as a researcher with her passion to be an advocate for science.”