Ashton Powell is a biology instructor at the North Carolina School of Science & Mathematics and elected member of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education. After earning his bachelor’s in neuroscience and a PhD in neurobiology, Powell became a Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Fellow. There, he became immersed in science policy, a field that informs the courses he teaches today. In both his teaching and public service, Powell is focused on how shared governance can help improve equity and mental health issues. ESAL interviewed Powell about his nonpartisan path to applying his science background to science education and policy.
DR: How did your training in science shape your path?
Powell: When I was going through graduate school, I didn’t know exactly why I wanted to be there. The niches that grad school prepares you for tend to be narrow. I felt like I was being trained for academia, but not for any other career options. And, of course, there is no guarantee of becoming an academic principal investigator (PI), even if you choose that route.
I was lucky because my advisor at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill School of Medicine – Franck Polleux – was a fantastic PI who let me try things to diversify my experience. I became interested in translational science – the interface of scientific research with medicine. I wanted to explore how science gets applied to help humans. I sought experiences after graduate school that dealt with the interactions of science, people, and policy.
DR: What opportunities did you find?
Powell: I did a fellowship at the Duke Genome Ethics, Law, & Policy Center, where I became aware of ethical issues in science, such as those associated with genetic diagnoses, amniocentesis, and fetal reduction. And I also went to Washington, D.C. as a National Academies Mirzayan Science & Technology Fellow. I worked on the Committee on Science, Technology, and Law, during the anthrax scare, and even attended Supreme Court hearings. These experiences highlighted other ways to use scientific training.
DR: Did that solidify your interests outside academia and help propel you onto your current path?
Powell: They did! But at first I decided to apply to law school, thinking it would give me a place to work on bioethics and other legal aspects of biology. I had to apply locally, because my wife was still at the University of North Carolina, and it happened to be a popular year for law school applications. I didn’t get in! Ultimately, it freed me for the work I do now. But, in the interim I was out of work, with a child on the way.
DR: Ouch! What changed?
Powell: I saw a teaching job open at the North Carolina School of Science & Mathematics (NCSSM). I was entering with no experience teaching high school students or any real intention to do so, but the job was perfect for me. I caught the teaching bug and passion for fostering science literacy.
DR: Tell me more about what makes it a great fit for you.
Powell: It is a public boarding school for 11-12th graders from all over the state. The school is not managed by the North Carolina Department of Instruction – rather by UNC, which gives us complete academic freedom. All the teachers have advanced degrees. I teach not only science, but science policy. It taps into the very things I had been interested in when I applied to law school. I love having the opportunity to show students the importance of science for a whole variety of careers – whether they go into research, or become judges, or coaches, the many ways science is relevant.
DR: What sort of student body do you teach now?
Powell: Talented students with a serious interest in science and math. Admission to the NCSSM is competitive, and it’s hard for students to be away from home. So, I helped change the admissions guidelines to ascertain that students genuinely want to be there, not because of parental pressure. Still, today’s high school students face tremendous pressures to perform.
DR: How can you address that through your work?
Powell: First and foremost, by respecting the students and treating every kid fairly. And I have also become an advocate for shared governance to make change at a higher level. I was elected Faculty Senate president of the school, allowing me to engage the school leadership in creating respectful working relationships between administration, faculty, and staff. Shared governance builds trust and supports better decision-making. It’s important to have mechanisms in place to hear from students, staff, employees, and families.
DR: Does your interest in shared governance extend beyond the high school?
Powell: Yes, in fact I was the first high school faculty member ever appointed to the UNC Faculty Assembly. It gave me the opportunity to talk with faculty about how students were doing in college, reinforcing my concerns about student mental health. The Assembly is also a model for shared governance. I had built a relationship with university administrators and faculty, including the chancellor. Serving on the Assembly, I mobilized an agenda of improved relationship-building through questioning and listening.
DR: Is that what led to your running for the Chapel Hill School Board last year?
Powell: Yes, as my term ended on the Assembly, I wanted to continue to play a role in governance and figuring how to include people in collaborative processes. I was in a unique position because, typically, a teacher in Chapel Hill would not be allowed to serve on the Board of Education. But, because of the autonomy of the NCSSM, I could run. I invested just $600 in a campaign and was surprised to win.
DR: From a Board of Education perspective, is there a specific shared governance system you recommend?
Powell: I would not advocate for a specific system, rather just systematically listening to various groups across our district and allow it to influence our decision-making. Without a system in place, there is a communication vacuum and you won’t actually know how everything is going in class. Working with PTAs, we must find ways to include more diverse families in decision making. Otherwise, how can you reasonably make decisions on behalf of the school district?
DR: What are your personal priorities for your School Board service?
Powell: Shared governance, mental health, and equity. We have one of the largest achievement gaps in the country. The pandemic has especially revealed the underlying inequities. Our public-school options should be competitive with other options; students that choose private school should not get a huge advantage. While it was not my motivation for running, I also help that it will inspire other teachers to run. Teacher perspectives are generally not well-represented across North Carolina, yet are invaluable for a successful school district. Just as having faculty at the table when decisions are made for universities, having teachers at the table ensures that their voices are heard and that they are informed about how decisions are made.
DR: What advice would you give to other scientists looking to make a difference in their community or state?
Powell: Don’t be afraid of failure. You know how often experiments don’t work, but you still do them. You’ve been trained to fail and move on! If you aren’t using that aspect of your training, then you’re not making full use of what you’ve learned.
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