Laser scientist Christina C. C. Willis ’09MS ’13PhD has been selected for a one-year congressional fellowship in Washington to help craft recommendations and scientific policies.

Willis will begin her Arthur H. Guenther Congressional Fellowship as a special legislative assistant in September thanks to her selection for the post by The Optical Society and SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics.

“I am excited to learn as much as I can about the legislative process and how science policy is crafted,” says the UCF alumna, who graduated with both her master’s degree and doctorate in optics. “I look forward to expanding my skill set by working on a broad range of technical topics, especially the areas of energy and environmental policy, STEM education and STEM diversity.”

Placement in a specific congressional office is made after orientation and involves interviewing in a variety of offices to find a mutual fit, which could be in either the House or Senate. “I am currently doing research and talking with former fellows about their experiences, and I am keeping my mind open to the many possibilities,” she says.

The fellowship program aims to introduce technical and scientific backgrounds and perspectives to the decision-making process in Congress and provide scientists with insight into the workings of the federal government. Fellows typically have the opportunity to conduct legislative or oversight work, assist in congressional hearings and debates, prepare policy briefs and write speeches.

“Input from scientists does have an effect on policy decisions, but it’s important to realize that policy is not made on science alone. Other issues, such as funding and public opinion, play a big role in how policy is crafted.”

“Input from scientists does have an effect on policy decisions, but it’s important to realize that policy is not made on science alone,” she says. “Other issues, such as funding and public opinion, play a big role in how policy is crafted.”

Willis, who lives in Washington, earlier this year finished a 19-month around-the-world trip visiting 30 countries on six continents with her spouse, Daniel Ott ’11MS ’14PhD, who works as an optical consultant.

“It was scary to head out for such a long journey with only each other and our backpacks, but it was an incredibly rewarding experience,” she says. “I learned a lot about the world and myself, and all the generosity we received from people, sometimes strangers, has inspired me to find ways to help others and return the kindness that I have received.”

Before her trip, she worked as a laser scientist at a company called Fibertek in Herndon, Virginia, which specializes in LIDAR (light radar) systems for flight applications. The systems she helped build are used on planes and satellites to take measurements of distant objects. After her trip, she has worked as a contractor at the company.

While doing her graduate work at UCF, Willis says an important lesson she learned to apply to her career was the value of persistence.

“During my dissertation work I ran into a number of unforeseen problems that caused delays and it was incredibly frustrating. But I knew that if I wanted to graduate, I had no choice but to keep trying,” she says. “Repeatedly picking myself back up and trying again was hard, but making it through and finally succeeding was incredibly gratifying, as well as an important lesson in not giving up.”

She says much of her “big-picture thinking” was the result of research techniques and strategy taught by her advisor, UCF Pegasus Professor Martin Richardson. She says former UCF research faculty member, Professor Lawrence Shah ’99MS ’01PhD, also was a guide and support through her dissertation.

As an undergraduate at Wellesley College, Willis held an internship at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and after graduating she worked on lasers for metrological applications at the National Metrological Institute of Japan. After earning her doctorate at UCF, Willis initially worked at Vision Engineering Solutions in Orlando, a startup specializing in laser tracking and imaging.

“Being awarded the fellowship is a dream come true,” Willis says. “Science policy and science-informed policy are incredibly important because of the impact they have on everyone’s lives – from environmental policy to healthcare to education and beyond. Getting to learn more about policy and the legislative process, to get to be a part of it, and to have the opportunity to make a contribution to it, is something very special to me, and I intend to make the most of it.”