Because Andrew Merluzzi did not want to find himself trapped in career rut, he thought the University of Wisconsin–Madison's dual-degree program in public affairs and neuroscience would be a good option.
"I was afraid of being 'siloed' into one particular area of study, and I knew I would need an interdisciplinary focus," the first-year student says. "I like where I've ended up — I can learn about the molecular basis of Alzheimer's disease one day and the policies of mental health-care coverage the next."
"The University of Wisconsin'S Neuroscience and Public Policy program is the first of its kind, and I think it's the most developed and integrated program out there," Merluzzi adds. "The Neuroscience Training Program and La Follette are both highly reputed, so coming here was an obvious fit given my career goals and interests. Not to mention the city of Madison is a wonderful place to live."
Spending five years in Washington, D.C., also influenced his decision to attend the La Follette School. "In D.C., there's a certain energy you pick up on," he says. "Beyond all the insider politics and fleeting news stories, I enjoyed being in a place where people were truly interested in making our country and world better. Madison is like that, too."
Merluzzi completed his undergraduate degree in psychology in 2013 at American University in Washington, D.C. He credits his undergraduate professors for nurturing his interest in neuroscience. "I had great professors and mentors in my introductory psychology and neuroscience courses," he says. "Through them I developed an interest in all the strange and intriguing aspects of human behavior. That led naturally to an interest in how those behaviors are produced, how they evolved, and how they can go awry — they all stem from processes in the brain."
After graduating from American, Merluzzi became a science writer for the Association for Psychological Science, publishing magazine articles about the biological basis of drug addiction and treatment, the differences in emotionality among cultures, and how best to teach undergraduates the value of basic science for policy-making. Most recently, he wrote an article about dementia prevention and the policy implications of an aging society.
His public affairs training is already informing his work in neuroscience. "After taking Statistical Methods for Public Policy Analysis with Dave Weimer last semester, I feel like I see regressions wherever I look," Merluzzi says. "Those kinds of quantitative techniques are really the stock-in-trade of policy analysts, and I feel much better equipped to answer both scientific- and policy-related questions having learned them."
The variety of courses available to Merluzzi through the La Follette School is also a benefit. "There are classes for learning the rigorous quantitative methods of policy analysis, and there are classes in which I can learn how policy is created in real-time," he says. "There's a lot more to policymaking than the traditional rational process — there's lobbying and agenda-setting and coalition-forming and interest groups. La Follette provides that breadth."
Merluzzi will apply what he learns through the Washington Fellows Program of the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. He is one of about 10 fellows who will travel to Washington, D.C., this year to meet with their congressional delegation to advocate for biomedical research and increased funding for the National Institutes of Health. "Advocating for basic government support for scientific research is an incredibly important issue, and I'm looking forward to learning more about it," Merluzzi says. "To see previous biomedical research bear fruit — to bring basic science to clinical application — we need to scale up investment at the federal level."
With completion of his doctorate a few years off, Merluzzi looks forward to exploring career options. "I vacillate between continuing with scientific research and focusing instead on the policy arena," he says. "Ideally, I'd like to end up in a position where I can be surrounded by the cutting-edge science and use that experience to move policy forward. More and more scientific organizations are developing government relations or policy departments — perhaps that's where I'll find myself post-graduation."