Safeguarding Biodiversity: An Entomologist’s Goal as Government Policy Analyst
By Manpreet Kohli, Ph.D.
Editor’s Note: This is the next post in the “Standout ECPs” series contributed by the Entomological Society of America’s Early Career Professionals (ECP) Committee, highlighting outstanding ECPs that are doing great work in the profession. (An ECP is defined as anyone within the first five years of obtaining their terminal degree in their field.) Read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.
Emily Sandall, Ph.D., is a science policy analyst in Multilateral Affairs Division of the Foreign Agricultural Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She joined the division as a 2022-2023 AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow before moving into her position full-time in summer 2023. Previously, she served as a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Biodiversity and Global Change at Yale University, where she studied odonate distribution patterns. She earned a B.S. in biology in 2013 at Loyola University Chicago and a Ph.D. in entomology in 2020 at Penn State University, where she studied odonate biodiversity. As a member of the Entomological Society of America, she is the Systematics, Evolution, & Biodiversity Section Representative to the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee.
Kohli: Did you always want to be an entomologist?
Sandall: I grew up in a very rural part of Illinois, in a log cabin nestled between some woods and pasture. As a child, I was privileged to be able to spend a lot of time outside, wandering in our woods and creek, running through the prairies that my mom was restoring, and riding horses. I suppose you could say I was always very interested in natural history and biodiversity, rather than specifically insects. Insects are just the perfect conduit for that type of interest!
I really excelled in biology in school, and this was encouraged by some really great teachers in elementary and high school. I was the first person in my family to go to college, and I studied biology at Loyola University Chicago. I was also in the Interdisciplinary Honors Program, which was highly influential for me in how I saw lifelong learning and applying knowledge to global challenges.
At Loyola, I got my first taste of research in the lab of Bala Chaudhary, and I studied mycorrhizal fungi on urban green roofs. I then took some time after graduating with my B.S., working in academic libraries, and then I found myself getting back to my biology roots by curating dragonflies in an entomological museum, the Frost Entomological Museum at Penn State. I decided I wanted to pursue my Ph.D. in entomology at Penn State University, where I studied odonate biodiversity, and I graduated in 2020.
What is the main goal of your work? Can you describe your current position?
I analyze and advise on science policy in the Multilateral Affairs Division of the Foreign Agricultural Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. My specialty is environmental policy that has a biodiversity component, so that means I primarily cover biodiversity, deforestation, and land use in the context of international agricultural trade and multilateral environmental agreements, which are legally binding for countries party to them. You can see one example of that in the Convention on Biological Diversity, which I have written about previously for Entomology Today.
I use my research background to read a lot of reports, go to a lot of meetings, and work within USDA and with other agencies in the federal government to make policies that are science-based. While I’m not leading my own research anymore, my days are spent synthesizing information, navigating science diplomacy, and drafting language to help make policy decisions. I transitioned into this position through a 2022-2023 AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship where I was placed in this office, and I transitioned into a civil servant role earlier this summer.
Do you miss doing research and being an entomologist?
I would say I am still doing research, just in a different way! I am learning about entirely new topics and getting to explore new information to synthesize for decision-making. My entomology background hasn’t left me, and I would say that my experience with insect biodiversity, biodiversity informatics, systematics, and biogeography have been especially useful in preparing me in what I cover now: biodiversity, deforestation, and land use.
Having a respect for the small but absolutely ubiquitous and critical organisms such as arthropods gives me a unique perspective in what I do. Entomologists can be found in all kinds of positions; I think frequently it’s just harder to find them when we don’t have a sense of “alternative” job titles or paths they may be in.
As an early-career professional, what is your long-term career goal, and how has it shifted (if at all) since graduating?
At its core, my long-term career goal is to make a difference in safeguarding global biodiversity. There are so many different ways one can do this: research, outreach, policy. I would describe myself as someone who likes to connect different ideas to do something actionable. I think that the core goal hasn’t shifted at all since I graduated with my Ph.D., but I don’t think that academia or a research career is where I can best contribute to biodiversity.
While I was at Penn State for my graduate degree, I spent a lot of my free time in leadership roles doing entomology outreach and in the Penn State Community Garden. These opportunities to work with others were complementary to my research experience and showed me that I wanted to work on something broader and have more of a sustainability bend to my work.
After I graduated with my Ph.D., I went on to do a postdoc at the Center for Biodiversity and Global Change at Yale University, where I studied odonate distribution patterns and led a group of taxonomic experts as we worked on taxonomic backbones and evaluating species distribution models. I saw how what I was doing could connect to international biodiversity indicators and conservation efforts, and it solidified that I wanted to transition my career to biodiversity policy.
In my experience, we are all collectors; there are little snippets of each career step that we can see stringing together in the overall arc of our careers. I think as ECPs we are starting to really see how we want to craft the picture of our careers and which of those pieces we want to emphasize.
Is there a difference in work-life balance in academia versus government?
In my experience, yes, the work-life balance is certainly different. Working in government, I find that it’s easier for me to unplug and feel less like I have a never-ending to-do list in my freetime. Academia asks us to do a lot of unpaid labor and service to get ahead; I think that this can be especially true for women and underrepresented groups. While I still am involved in research collaborations (and open to forming new ones!), no longer having my productivity in those so closely tied to my worth and next steps on the career ladder means I can be more selective with my time.
Do you have any tips and pointers for students and ECPs who might be interested in transitioning to government careers?
I would say if a type of career transition sounds interesting, there’s no hurt in searching LinkedIn or reaching out to people for informational interviews. I don’t think career steps have to be viewed as absolutes; something can be interesting for a while to you, and then you can find new ways to contribute to topics that you care about. If you are interested in science policy, I also would highly recommend the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship or similar fellowships to those who are eligible.
If you could go back in time and change something in your career so far, what would it be and why?
I think that there were times I was overly critical of myself for not having every career step figured out and not feeling like research was the best fit for me. This sometimes made me feel like I was letting people down if I left research and academia. I think it’s easy to feel that way when you are finding your way in a career that is not the traditional path. If given the chance, I would be easier on myself along the way, since there’s already plenty of external judgment and evaluation to go around—particularly in academia!
If you could be any arthropod, which would you pick and why?
I would be a dragonhunter, Hagenius brevistylus, a dragonfly in the Gomphidae family. Their larval stage has so many cool adaptations and they are just magnificent to look at!
Manpreet Kohli, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Natural Sciences at Baruch College, City University of New York, and is the Eastern Branch Representative of the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: email@example.com.