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Dr. Matthew Garcia

Citizen-scientist fuels development of nationwide, university energy course

Dr. Matthew Garcia

Dr. Matthew Garcia serves as a DOE AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow in D.C. where he takes part in the Energy 101 initiative: an attempt to create and implement an introductory-level, interdisciplinary, undergraduate energy course in classrooms across the nation. This course would help students understand fundamental energy issues relevant to America’s economic and environmental wellbeing.

As a child, Matthew Garcia was fascinated with dinosaurs and time travel, and when he saw a NOVA episode on the human brain he was convinced then and there he wanted to study neurology and be an interviewed scientist.

Fundamental questions about the world and its people floated in his psyche, crafted his intellect and inspired him to search for answers. After years of funneling this curiosity into various endeavors, he now serves as an American Association for the Advancement of Sciences Science & Technology Policy Fellow in the U.S. Department of Energy AAAS S&T Fellowship Program, managed by the Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education.

Garcia obtained a doctorate in anatomy and neurobiology from the University of Kentucky in 2007 and focused his research on neuro-degeneration and neuro-traumatic events. His passion for “everything” has led him on the path of scientific ambassadorship and outreach to local, national and international communities. As a graduate student he involved himself with initiatives aimed at increasing minority involvement in biomedical research and university enrollment. As a post-doctoral research associate at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., he served as the vice chair for national outreach and volunteer services.

He also helped found Art of Science Memphis, a project that uses art—sculptures, pottery, paintings, etc.—to communicate very complex research themes. Garcia believes making science more accessible and palatable is essential to increasing publicly supported funds for research. It is this core belief that pulled him to the AAAS fellowship where he hopes he can effect change on a grand scale. In 2011, he began his two-year appointment in D.C. “The things we do here, they either are, or add up to, something that’s meant to change the way things are done as a nation,” said Garcia. “I’ve always wanted to do something that would help people—betterment of society and betterment of humanity—so this seemed like the proper venue or avenue to do that.”

Garcia’s day-to-day tasks vary at his fellowship but his main focus is the Energy 101 initiative, a collaborative effort between the Association of Public Land Grant Universities, the DOE office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and ORISE to create an interdisciplinary undergraduate energy course, similar to a fundamental biology or chemistry course. The course aims to integrate the physical and natural sciences with the social sciences, like economics and finances of energy. “Decisions are made by the public,” Garcia said. “It’s tough to make informed decision if the information you’re getting is not right.” The idea is to plug the course into colleges and universities across the nation to satisfy general education requirements.

The Energy 101 initiative seeks to lay down the basic framework of the course, allowing individual entities to mold the course as they see fit. So far, hundreds of higher-education institutions are interested, including the University of Maryland, where a pilot program will be implemented in 2013. “Each part of the U.S. is going to have a different slant on energy,” said Garcia. “You can imagine in the pacific northwest they might want to talk a little bit about hydropower; in the southwest maybe solar; in the northeast maybe coal; in Texas, natural gas.”

In addition to serving as the point of contact for various parties and analyzing project development for Energy 101, Garcia identifies publicly available resources to help improve workforce training in the energy field. He is often tasked with multiple deadline-oriented duties at once. Overall, he considers the insight and knowledge gained by being a part of the bureaucratic environment extremely valuable.

His advice for the program? “To do it. Apply, and if you don’t get in the first time, apply again. It’s worth it. And if you’re really interested in it, engage in the community around you and be that citizen scientist.” As a scientist himself, Garcia hopes his involvement in society will expand opportunities for research and career development, especially in the Hispanic community.

“Sometimes we forget we’re not just working on a problem in the lab. We need to help others,” said Garcia, whose humanitarian view of the world was shaped by his grandfather. His grandfather emigrated from Mexico to the U.S. empty-handed but worked his way out of an entry-level job to manage his own grocery store. “He had a very huge entrepreneurial spirit but also had a huge heart. He helped the community a lot,” said Garcia. “I wish only to be one-fourth the man he was, and if I do that I know I’ll be very successful.”