Hosting a Congressional Lab Tour

A guided tour of your lab is one of the most effective advocacy tools for making a lasting impression on a member of Congress or government official. Touring a laboratory is a memorable way to help lawmakers understand how biomedical research happens and encourage them to make the right decisions about the future of this country’s scientific enterprise.

When going on a lab tour, policymakers can see first-hand how medical and biological research is improving our understanding of the human body and advancing treatments and cures for disorders, and how important aspects of this work are being carried out by their own constituents. AIMBE helps Fellows get their legislators to the lab and start building a positive and lasting working relationship with engineers. Click here to sign-up with AIMBE to host a lab tour.

Case Study: Congressman David Price visits Professor Nimmi Ramanujam’s Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies

David Price, US Representative for North Carolina’s 4th congressional district, traveled to Duke University to learn about the future of women’s health technology.

The visit was inspired by Nimmi Ramanujam’s congressional briefing on Capitol Hill hosted by AIMBE to inform legislators about the impact of her federally funded research aimed at improving cancer screening and treatment on a global scale. Price is on the Committee on Appropriations and has long had an interest in health care, both at home and abroad, which led to his visit to see Ramanujam’s work first-hand.

During his visit, Price learned about Ramanujam’s various research projects, which focus on improving health outcomes through improved patient experience and reduced cost, both in the United States and in developing nations.

Graduate student Brandon Nichols talked about his work in breast cancer imaging. During an operation to remove a tumor, surgeons face the difficult challenge of removing all of the cancerous tissue while leaving behind as much healthy tissue as possible. A significant number of patients, however, return for a re-excision surgery that could be avoided if the margins were evaluated in the operating room during the initial surgery.

Ramanujam’s group was funded under an NIH Bionegineering Research Partnership grant to develop a portable imaging system to mitigate the need for extra surgeries. The device uses differences in how various wavelengths of light interact with breast tissue to spot residual cancerous areas. The technology has been tested on more than 100 patients to date and is the size of a laptop.

The second research focus is seeking to find a better way to screen cervical cancer, especially in low-income countries and regions of the United States where cervical cancer is most prevalent. Current best practices involve separating the vaginal walls with a speculum and using a bulky, expensive device called a colposcope from the outside of the body to visually inspect the cervix for troublesome areas in women with positive Pap smears.

This process is uncomfortable at best for women, and impractical to use in a community setting. Ramanujam’s solution is to consolidate the colposcope into a device the size and shape of a tampon and make it speculum free. Such a device would bring secondary prevention into a primary care setting, eliminating the need for referrals.

“The mortality rate of cervical cancer should absolutely be zero percent because we have all the tools to see and treat it,” said Ramanujam. “But it isn’t. That is in part because either women are not screened or women who are screened do not seek a confirmatory diagnosis via colposcopy.”

Ramanujam’s team is working on what amounts to a pocket-sized tampon with lights and a camera. Not only could this allow women to get images of their cervix themselves, it would open up the possibility of trained professionals a continent away doing the diagnoses—or even a computer doing it autonomously.

Diagnosis is only the first step of a solution, however, as treatment options are few and far between as well for remote locations. For that challenge, Ramanujam is working on a method to deliver gelatinized ethanol to kill problematic cells, though that work is still in its infancy.

Price, for his part, was very interested in the research and asked poignant questions throughout his visit. Afterward he remarked, “I’ve been meaning to visit and learn about these projects for a long time. These technologies need to be accessible to the layman for them to be effective, and they certainly seem to be as I was able to follow along easily. You all are doing a great job.”

Write an Op-ed

Members of Congress keep a close watch on media coverage, tracking issues of importance to their local constituency. This makes writing an op-ed an effective way to reach policymakers, as well as the general public about important issues relevant to medical and biological engineering.

Writing Tips

  1. Every sentence counts. Get to the point: Why does your topic matter? Why should it matter today?
  2. Share your expertise. If you have relevant qualifications to the topic you’re addressing be sure to include that in your letter. If you are a biomedical engineer at a local university—share that information up front.
  3. Make a call to action. Open your letter by advocating for your position. Then wrap your piece by explaining what you think needs to happen now, make your call to action.
  4. Be persuasive. It is important to have a clear thesis, in the service of a persuasive argument. Avoid “on the one hand, on the other hand” statements. Op-ed pages are for one-handed writers.

Keep in Mind…

  • Keep your op-ed brief, concise, and compelling. Get to the main point in the first two sentences. Keep your sentences short and your paragraphs tight. Your op-ed should be 700-800 words.
  • Be timely. Respond to an article within two or three days of its publication.
  • In your own words. Take the time to write the letter in your own words.

Op-ed Examples:

NYT: Falling Short on Science

The New York Times published an oped by Maria Zuber, PhD, vice president for research at M.I.T., that reminds readers of the effect of federal budget uncertainty on America’s leadership in sciences and technology. After discussing the US as a global competitor, Dr. Zuber writes, “We cannot continue to advance the frontiers of knowledge and lead the world in innovation without funding for students and equipment, and when the only long-term federal commitment is to fiscal uncertainty.”

The Hill: America Must Get Out of the Woods on Medical Research Funding

Claire Pomeroy, MD, MBA, president of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, wrote an oped in The Hill that urges readers to support “all the agencies playing critical roles in advancing medical research.” In the article, Dr. Pomeroy points out that “the research pipeline that delivers medicines and healthcare technologies involves an interdependent network of federal agencies,” further asking readers to “support the NIH and the entire network of federal agencies and institutions whose mission is to ensure the public’s health.”

Attend a Town Hall Meeting

Town hall meetings are a great opportunity to have direct contact with your policymakers. Raising key questions at public meetings is an effective approach to bringing science issues to the forefront.

Here are tips for finding and effectively participating in public events to engage your elected officials:

  • Plan to sit in the front row and ask a question that requires a thoughtful response, rather than a yes/no response.
  • Your question should be clear and concise. It’s not about sharing data or arguing your perspective—it’s about piquing the interest for the legislator or local community to further delve into the issue.
  • In just a few sentences, your question should do the following:
  • Introduce yourself as a constituent and establish yourself as an expert in your area of research.
  • Make a specific ask of the legislator—an action or a stance they take—on a specific issue.
  • Demonstrate why your issue and what’s at stake to the local community.
  • Follow-up by sending a thank you note to the legislator and their staff for their time. Share concise informational resources with the staff—fact sheets or executive summaries, not full reports or research papers. This is a great opportunity to make a personal connection and offer yourself not only as a concerned constituent, but also as a resource.

Calling Your Elected Official

  1. Make sure you’re talking to the right person. Ask for the best point-person on health and/or science (depending on the issue). If they are unavailable, ask to leave a brief message.
  2. Prepare your message to ensure it’s clear and concise. You have 3 minutes to get your point across; be sure to prioritize what’s most important. Don’t address hot-button issues like the Affordable Care Act. Stay on topic and avoid jargon.
  3. Let them know that you’re a constituent. Share your affiliations with local institutions and/or relevant areas of expertise.
  4. Make a very concrete ask. For example, “Vote yes for a $2 billion increase to NIH.”
  5. Say why this matters. Very briefly, let them know why you care and what the implications are for their state and constituency.
  6. Offer yourself as a resource. This is your chance to distinguish yourself not only as a concerned constituent but as someone who wants to be an asset to them.
  7. Follow-up. Share that you plan to follow how the elected official acts on the issue.

Making your voice heard is needed now more than ever.