Physical chemist Kristen Kulinowski was in the Madison Building at the Library of Congress on the morning of 11 September, excited at being a new congressional fellow for the Optical Society of America (OSA) and the International Society for Optical Engineering. The congressional fellows were just settling in for the day’s orientation session when the announcement came that the World Trade Center in New York had been hit by an airplane.

Within a couple of hours, Kulinowski was standing in the heat and smoke outside the Pentagon. She was providing food and drinking water to the first wave of firefighters battling flames in the gaping hole that had been ripped into the building by a terrorist-piloted airliner. In addition to science, Red Cross disaster relief work is a “passion,” Kulinowski said, and during the past 10 years she has worked a hurricane, a tropical storm, floods, and house fires. When the Pentagon was hit, she quickly offered her services to the local Red Cross. “There was a lot of chaos,” she said. “I identified myself as an experienced Red Cross team member, and I had my uniform on. I looked the part.”

Kulinowski eventually found herself in the courtyard at the center of the Pentagon, helping crews fighting the fire from the inside out. “The inside walls weren’t damaged. There were broken windows, but I think those were broken by the firefighters.”

Two months later, Kulinowski, who received her PhD in physical chemistry from the University of Rochester in New York, was working in Representative Edward Markey’s (D-Mass.) office on Capitol Hill, dealing with the ongoing anthrax scares and refocusing her political agenda on chemical and biological weapons and nuclear power plant safety. Nanoscience, the area she planned to work on when she came to Washington, DC, “seemed less immediate after September 11,” she said.

While Kulinowski’s story is perhaps the most dramatic of the 30 or so scientists who are beginning their yearlong fellowships on Capitol Hill under the sponsorship of a host of scientific societies, the 11 September events and the subsequent anthrax attacks have changed the lives of virtually all of the fellows.

Karen Wayland, the 2001-02 fellow for the American Geophysical Union, took a job on 10 October with Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Wayland, who holds a PhD in geology and resource development from Michigan State University, expected to work on issues such as wastewater infrastructure legislation. While infrastructure is still a concern, the question has shifted to how safe such systems are from terrorist attacks. “We are looking at the safety of all the critical infrastructures,” Wayland said. “The safety of nuclear waste, and how vulnerable water systems in small communities are. It is a whole range of things.”

Wayland was in an elevator in the Hart Senate Office Building that tested positive for anthrax. Because she was in a “hot zone,” she was on a full 60-day regimen of antibiotics. “If I had to be anyplace during this, I’m glad to be here,” she said. “We’re getting more information and there is less panic here than anywhere else.”

American Physical Society fellow Jennifer Wiseman, who holds a PhD in astronomy from Harvard University, was weighing several offers on Capitol Hill when the anthrax attacks occurred and, as a result, had to deal with delays in the placement process. “I’ve been in every infected building, but not on the problem days. But it’s an intense time. In spite of walking around in anthrax-ridden buildings, I think this is great.”

Wiseman, a Hubble Fellow at Johns Hopkins University before coming to Washington, planned on working for the House Science Committee’s subcommittee on space and aeronautics. “I considered a diverse range of opportunities, and the choices have been hard. I’m using this as a test experience to see if I want to stay in the policy realm or go back to academia.”

The American Institute of Physics’s new fellow, Maureen Mellody, planned to spend the year working on intellectual property issues in the office of Representative Howard Berman (D-Calif.). Mellody, who holds a PhD in applied physics from the University of Michigan, did her thesis “on the singing voice,” she said. “As part of that, I got my computer to sing in different voices, and the idea of intellectual property rights arose.” Berman is on a subcommittee that deals with intellectual property, so Mellody expected to be deeply involved in the issue. “If I like this I might continue to work on policy, but I would be surprised if I didn’t end up back in academia at some point,” she said.

Given the atmosphere on Capitol Hill, she said, it was difficult to know when the focus will return to issues not related to terrorism. “It is tense and distracted around here now,” she said in late October. “Things are being canceled and no one knows what the agenda will be.” And she, like many people in Washington, was anxious about another terrorist attack. “The only thing that worries me is what’s next. I’m in the bull’s-eye.”

Eric Werwa, who is being sponsored jointly by OSA and the Materials Research Society, came to Capitol Hill from his job as an assistant professor of physics at Otterbein College in Ohio. “In addition to teaching physics, I taught a course called ‘Energy, Science, and Society,’ and I became excited about the idea of doing it, not just teaching it,” he said.

Werwa landed in Representative Mike Honda’s (D-Calif.) office, which he believed would be a good place to pursue his interests. “Honda’s on the science committee, he’s interested in energy issues, and he’s interested in education, which I come from,” Werwa said. “He represents Silicon Valley and my background is materials science.” Werwa holds a PhD in electronic materials from MIT.

Only a few days after Werwa sat down at his desk in the Cannon House Office Building, anthrax forced the staff out. They returned a few days later, Werwa said, and he expected his immediate focus would be on ways to increase biosecurity.