Aiming for That Sweet Spot Between Science and Politics

Amidst the pandemic, we find ourselves faced with multiple inflection points, questions of fairness, and political concerns. North Country native Fiona McEnany ’18 sees how unequal access to healthcare ties it all together.

“I spent the majority of my childhood in a medically underserved area and learned early about the structural inequities in medicine,” she says. “Equity and social justice are at the core of all of my work—from lab-based science to political advocacy. My interest in health equity and science policy has been reinforced this year through direct involvement in COVID-19 vaccination efforts, and I hope to be a liaison between the scientific and political communities as both a researcher and political leader.”

McEnany has two PSU bachelor’s degrees, in biology and political science, along with a minor in peace and justice studies. She subsequently earned a master of public health degree from Dartmouth College, where she is currently in a molecular and cellular biology PhD program.

Doctoral studies are not nearly enough to contain this activist. Some recent highlights include helping the Northern New Hampshire Medical Reserve Corps run COVID-19 vaccination clinics, serving on the New Hampshire Public Health Association Policy Committee, interning with a comprehensive AIDS service organization, administering hearing tests to migrant farmworkers, starting a free reproductive health clinic, and founding a public health-centered voter engagement advocacy team. Promoting health access unites them all.

“Fiona was a standout student at PSU, and I’m not surprised at her resounding success in postgraduate life,” says Professor Brigid O’Donnell, her biology advisor. “She has always trod her own path, grounded in confidence. Fiona is not one to blindly follow conventional advice, but instead she has forged ahead in her innovative style.”

Equity and social justice are at the core of all of my work—from lab-based science to political advocacy.

Fiona McEnany ’18

McEnany’s biology studies were also mentored by Professor Heather Doherty. “Fiona and I are kindred spirits, both go-getters,” says Doherty. “Her personal drive, enthusiasm, and ‘no fear’ attitude are all part of makes her successful.”

Self-assurance, together with the intimacy of PSU programs, led to a fruitful connection with Doherty, whose laboratory research centers on cardiovascular disease. “Fiona sought me out and did research in my lab because she saw how this could be a way for her to combine her science and policy interests,” says Doherty.

In 2018, McEnany was one of only 60 college students nationwide selected for the Council on Undergraduate Research’s “Posters on the Hill” event, which brings undergraduate researchers and their mentors to Capitol Hill. She had come to Doherty with the idea and the two traveled to Washington together after submitting an abstract based on Plymouth State research.

The event was a highlight of McEnany’s PSU experience. “Students gain exposure to the science and policy continuum,” she says. “Members of Congress interact with students to better understand why funded research is so important, and it also helps educate those who may not be that caught up on the science as to what’s going on in their home state.”

“That was a golden opportunity for Fiona to combine the poly sci and science sides of her studies,” says Doherty.

PSU’s Integrated Clusters learning model embraces the interdisciplinarity modeled by McEnany’s dual major path. “My master’s studies were at the nexus of biology and political science and I felt incredibly well prepared for that,” she says. “I wasn’t forced to choose between majors at PSU and had incredible mentors who really fostered my interest in being in this interdisciplinary space.”

Professor Filiz Otucu Ruhm was among her political science mentors. McEnany returned to PSU last summer, albeit virtually, co-teaching Pandemics and Panic: Science, Society and Survival with Ruhm. The two had previously collaborated in the University’s Model UN student organization, including conference work on-campus and internationally.

McEnany was recently feted as one of the New Hampshire Union Leader’s “40 Under Forty,” an annual celebration of younger Granite Staters making a difference in their communities and professions. “What she has accomplished within such short period of time is hard to conceive,” said Professor Ruhm in her nomination letter. “I don’t think she wastes a single day without improving herself. But more importantly, I don’t think a day passes that she doesn’t touch a life, make a difference.”

Looking ahead, post PhD, McEnany may gravitate toward infectious disease research and policy. “Somewhere at that sweet spot between science and the political community,” she muses. “I also love teaching, so probably a multidisciplinary career.”

Whatever she does, we will all benefit. “Fiona is a visionary, a natural leader, and a person who is changing the world for the better,” says Professor O’Donnell. “I am proud to know her, and excited to continue to see the impacts she will make wherever she contributes her prodigious energy, passion, and intellect.”