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Director's Letter

By Shobita Parthasarathy

It has been a long and difficult year, and a winter full of historic events. Here in the STPP program, we have had no shortage of work to do at the intersections of science, technology, policy, and the public good. The first report from our Technology Assessment Project (TAP), Cameras in the Classroom: Facial Recognition Technology in Schools, received coverage from Wired magazine, NPR, and other national and regional outlets interested in the ongoing debate about the use of facial recognition technology. This year the TAP is focusing on the pressing question of vaccine hesitancy, and we expect to release our report shortly.

Just last week I had the opportunity to testify before the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, and Related Agencies about equity in energy and climate innovation. My testimony centered on the reality that marginalized communities (including those who are low-income and those who come from historically disadvantaged communities of color) are often unable to access the benefits of science and technology, but may be disproportionately subject to the harms. I advised the committee, which oversees the budget for the Department of Energy, to incorporate the expertise of both affected communities and social scientists into its research, development, and demonstration programs.

I am thrilled to share that the Biden administration has appointed the talented Robert Hampshire, one of STPP's core faculty members, as principal deputy assistant director for research and technology in the U.S. Department of Transportation. Robert will be taking a temporary leave of absence from the Ford School in order to serve. Robert brings impressive expertise, and a deep commitment to equity, access, and justice that will improve transportation policy for all Americans.

Our upcoming events will all continue to be virtual and easy to attend from anywhere. Next Monday, March 8th at 4:00pm EST, Darshan Karwat, Assistant Professor at Arizona State University, will be in conversation with STPP Faculty Affiliate Tony Reames about sustainability, social justice, and public policy. And, throughout May and June, STPP is cosponsoring Behind Walls, Beyond Discipline: Science, Technology & the Carceral State, a series of weekly panels about how science and technology lie at the heart of the carceral state. We hope you’ll join us.

Spotlight on STPP Community members

As part of a new regular feature, we will be highlighting members of the STPP community and their work, both here and on our website. This month, STPP research assistant Sujin Kim interviewed our new STPP postdoctoral fellow Dr. Johanna Okerlund, and STPP alum Melvin Washington II, who also joined us for a career development webinar with current students. Below are excerpts from the interviews; visit our website to read the full conversations with Johanna and Melvin

Johanna Okerlund 

Photo of Johanna OkerlundHow has your role as an educator influenced your work?

We are facing really complex challenges such as political polarization, lack of a common understanding of truth or reality, racism, income inequality. Many of these challenges relate to or are exacerbated by technology. I may not see solutions to these challenges in my lifetime and as a technologist, I'm not sure how much progress I will be able to make towards them myself. While this may seem discouraging, I do see hope in future generations and I get a glimpse of that hope with the students I mentor and teach.

I don't consider my role to be to prepare them for the specific kinds of jobs or to contribute to a particular technological landscape, but rather that I am helping them prepare to be able to shape the types of jobs that exist in the future or shape the technological landscape itself. Working as a teacher and educator allows me to think further into the future, not in terms of specifics about what the future will look like, but rather in terms of what kinds of skills and mindsets are needed for radical and creative envisioning of a more equitable and just world. 

How did you become interested in the social and ethical issues related to AI? 

I started developing these interests around the same time that I became interested in these issues related to computational technology in general. For about 5 years, I was helping to set up and run a university Makerspace, which is an open-ended space with 3D printers, laser cutters, electronics, and even some hardware devices for AI-enabled computer vision for students to tinker with. In running workshops and introducing many students to these technologies for the first time, I couldn't help but wonder if we were being too optimistic and naive about the usage of the space.

While I was fairly confident I could intervene if it seemed like someone in the Makerspace was creating something that would do active harm, it was less clear how to anticipate or mitigate any unintended consequences of their endeavors. It seemed like if I were to introduce a student to an AI-enabled computer vision device, I should also educate them on the social and ethical issues related to the technology. This prompted my own exploration into the social and ethical issues related to AI and technology in general in order to understand what social issues should be integrated in the consciousness of technical communities or spaces that I was responsible for.


Melvin Washington II


Photo of Melvin Washington IIHow has your work been influenced by your experience at STPP?

My STPP experience provided enriching and broad exposure to a number of historical factors, social issues, and political dynamics that shape contemporary science and tech policymaking. I think what resonated with me the most though, and what is most relevant to my work at present, was how many of the courses were really a study of knowledge itself. What counts as "knowledge" and "expertise", how they are created, how they are navigated, and how those processes/dynamics came to be. This opened my mind to how subjective even the most objective understandings of the world really are.

My criminal justice reform work at the Vera Institute of Justice is data driven. Fundamentally what we're asking jurisdictions to do, when we help design and implement criminal justice reforms, is to make decisions based on science (in addition to a different set of values). There is decades of research that demonstrates the harmful impact that the overuse of jail incarceration can have on individuals and communities. However, policymakers are not automatons that objectively evaluate data and make perfectly rational decisions. The way they react to the scientific findings we present to them is shaped by a combination of their own value judgements regarding specific forms of knowledge production, expertise, ethical mandates, and pragmatism.

My STPP experience has helped me to understand and unpack how stakeholders relate to knowledge in a way that improves my ability to communicate data in a cogent manner, to a variety of audiences.


What did the path to your current role look like?

My driving force to this point professionally has been a commitment to improving the lives of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities. Focusing on the people has led me to a number of different policy issues that implicate intersectional struggles for racial, economic, gender, and environmental justice.

This is also what led me to the STPP program. It's impossible to ignore the impact that rapid technological advancement has had and will continue to have on already marginalized communities. Leaving the Ford School, I had a strong desire to exercise this passion through an employer that would provide me the opportunity to both intellectualize about and act on the issues that mattered to me. As a data-driven think and do tank working to respond to a system almost unparalleled in its notoriety for causing racialized harm (the criminal legal system), the Vera Institute presented an opportunity to do exactly what I thought I wanted to. 


COVID-19 Public Engagement 

Photo of Alex Kate HalveyIn response to the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the STPP community have contributed policy analysis to help inform the response. Alex Kate Halvey, PhD Candidate in Materials Science and Engineering, wrote a brief called Engaging with Uncertainty: Best Practices for Science Communication during the Climate Crisis and COVID-19. STPP Director Shobita Parthasarathy wrote a memo on ensuring global access to COVID-19 vaccines as part of a Ford School series on key issues facing the Biden Administration in its first 100 days. 

A Conversation on Sustainability, Social Justice, & Policy


Darshan Karwat, School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Arizona State University

in conversation with

Tony Reames, School of Environment and Sustainability, & STPP Faculty Affiliate, University of Michigan.

Monday, March 8th, 2021 
4:00pm - 5:00pm EST
Virtual Event

More information and registration

Behind Walls, Beyond Discipline: 
Science, Technology & the Carceral State


University of Michigan — Ann Arbor
May 14th - June 11, 2021


Details and registration

STPP Community News

Despite this difficult year, many in our community have had big achievements including awards, new jobs, op-eds, publications, research grants, and scholarships. We wanted to take a moment to share their news and celebrate their hard work. 


Jason Albert, Ph.D. Candidate in Pharmaceutical Sciences, has been named a Class of 2021 Presidential Management Fellowship Finalist. PMF program is a flagship leadership development program for advanced degree candidates. The program seeks to instill the spirit of public service into its fellows with the hopes of encouraging and leading them into a career in government. 

Stephanie Pistorius, Ph.D. Candidate in Neuroscience, was awarded the NIH Blueprint Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience (D-SPAN) F99/K00 award. The award supports a defined pathway across career stages for outstanding graduate students from diverse backgrounds underrepresented in neuroscience research. The award funds the rest of her PhD and 4 years of a Post-doc. 

Alexa White, Ph.D. Candidate in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, has received the World Wildlife Fund Conservation Leadership Award for 2020-2021. This award acknowledges the achievements of exceptional young people working toward conservation solutions in the United States, and seeks to inspire other young people to get involved in opportunities within their communities.


Lucca Henrion, Ph.D., Research Fellow with the Global CO2 Initiative wrote an article in the Washington Post about the twin problems of climate change and infrastructure through technology and policy. 

Ben Isaacoff, Ph.D., Science and Technology Adviser at the U.S. Department of State wrote and managed two space science-related bills for Senator Peters that were signed into law in December: S.1694 - One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act and Promoting Research and Observations of Space Weather to Improve the Forecasting of Tomorrow Act or the PROSWIFT Act. 

Christopher Lawrence, Ph.D., is joining the faculty of the Science, Technology and International Affairs Program at Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, and has published articles in International Security and Social Studies of Science.

Carlos Puentes Mestril, Ph.D., was accepted into the California Council on Science and Technology program (CCST), and has been working in Sacramento since November.

Dalal Najib, Ph.D., was published in the Special Issue of Science & Diplomacy. The publication addresses science policy implications of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Arab region and offers some possible solutions. The article can be found here:

In Fall of 2020, Kevin Reed, Ph.D. was elected the President-elect of Science and Society Section of the American Geophysical Union

Faculty Affiliates

Jose Alfaro, Ph.D., SEAS Assistant Professor, won a $2 million grant from NSF to work on recycling microplastics. Part of the research will be around understanding the full triple bottom line of new technologies that his team is coming up with. Additionally, Dr. Alfaro has two SEAS capstone teams working with the UN on different policy projects. The first team is working with the Climate Technology Center and Network (CTCN), and will be creating a critical analysis of the countries’ NDCs and their Technology Assistance Request. The second team is working with UNDP-Biofin in Costa Rica. Biofin creates new ways to generate funds for biodiversity, and the team will be analyzing the New National Strategy for Bioeconomy in Costa Rica and how it can support the NDC for the country. 

Todd Allen, Ph.D., Chair of the Department of Nuclear Engineering & Radiological Science, was asked to join a National Academy of Engineering panel on "Laying the Foundation for New and Advanced Nuclear Reactors in the United States."  This panel will meet over calendar year 2021 to assess the future of new and advanced nuclear reactor technologies and identify the opportunities and barriers to commercialization.

John DeCicco, Ph.D., retired in the fall and is now Research Professor Emeritus however he is still happy to remain as an active STPP affiliate. Professor DeCicco recently published an op-ed in the Detroit News, General Motors touts innovation, yet rejects industry regulations.

Joel Howell, M.D., Ph.D., Department of Internal Medicine, Department of History, and Department of Health Management and Policy, published a paper with Alex Peahl looking at changes in prenatal care delivery guidelines with special emphasis on the role of technology and the impact of the pandemic

Beza Merid, Ph.D., LSA Collegiate Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Communication Studies, has started a new position as an American Heart Association Health Equity Research Fellow at the University of Michigan Medical School. Merid is working in a research center that is developing a mobile health intervention to help patients manage hypertension. His first publication as part of this center, Reflections on the Values of Community-Based Participatory Research in Supporting Mobile Health Technology Use was published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes in September. 

Nicholson Price, J.D., Ph.D., Professor of Law, has been co-authoring a blog series about COVID-19 and innovation institutions. He has also published a piece in Science about knowledge transfer for vaccine manufacturing, as well as an article about liability for medical AI

Barry Rabe, Ph.D., Professor of Public Policy, published a new book titled: Trump, the Administrative Presidency & Federalism, and is soon to release the eleventh edition of Environmental Policy: New Directions for the Twenty-first Century

Kaitlin Raimi, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Public Policy, published several articles on topics including understanding how sustainable initiatives fail, public perceptions of scientific advisory boards and the legitimacy of advisory boards, and attitudes toward tampering with the natural world

Tony Reames, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the School of Environment and Sustainability, testified before the Congressional Subcommittee on Energy on the Committee on Energy and Commerce to discuss the importance of an equity-based approach to improving clean energy access. Additionally Tony is working on a new NSF project focusing on energy insecurity in three Detroit neighborhoods, and has published a new paper titled: Exploring the Nexus of Energy Burden, Social Capital and Environmental Quality in Shaping Health in US Counties

Keep In Touch with STPP

As always, we want to hear from you! We want to hear your professional and life updates. You can find us on Twitter and LinkedIn, or email us at

Our mailing address is:
Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program
Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy
University of Michigan
735 South State Street | Ann Arbor, MI 48109

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