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Student helping shape state policy through inaugural fellowship

A second-year doctoral fellow in the Indiana University School of Health & Human Sciences in Indianapolis is spending his summer working with the Indiana Department of Education as part of an inaugural program.

The INSPECT Fellowship — Indiana Science Policy: Education & Career Training — is an Indiana Academy of Science program created in partnership with state agencies and institutions of higher education, including IUPUI.

Rafael Alamilla is one of only three fellows selected for the 2023 program. He will help the Department of Education develop an academic standards framework based on newly adopted Board of Education requirements. He will also document progress in STEM and computer science education in Indiana.

His research will help address some of the state’s education-related challenges and deepen the university’s commitment to public service, which are priorities of one of the IU 2030 strategic plan pillars, Service to the State and Beyond.

Rafael Alamilla. Rafael Alamilla.“One of the things that the COVID pandemic taught me is that we need more scientists in the day-to-day — informing decision-making and working with not just legislators but with communities and community partners to make impactful change,” Alamilla said.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology from California State University, San Bernardino, and a master’s in kinesiology from the University of Illinois, Alamilla left academia to work in the private sector, where he learned about the importance and influence of policymaking.

“I moved to Memphis, Tennessee, in 2020 to work in corporate wellness,” he said. “Memphis is a majority-Black city on the Mississippi delta that has been under-resourced and underdeveloped for generations. As a consequence, there are a lot of disparities and inequities.

“When I left the research setting and went into the ‘real world’ to implement what I was taught as an undergrad and master’s student, I realized I was coming up short because I didn’t really understand how all of those different factors influence the actual implementation.”

That awakening led him to Indianapolis.

“At that point, I had a conversation with NiCole Keith, and we hit it off well. She does a lot of work assessing physical activity in communities, health disparities and health inequities. I came to Indianapolis to work with her.”

His dedication to translating research into practice prompted a different professor to recommend Alamilla apply for the INSPECT Fellowship.

“While talking to Rafael at a conference for minority scientists, I could sense his passion for both health sciences and policy, and his excitement about how he could use his talents to help others and set policy that would have a lasting impact,” said Randall Roper, a professor in the School of Science. “I thought that given his background and desire to work in both fields, the INSPECT Fellowship might be perfect for him. I was so excited to learn that he was selected and believe he will do a tremendous job now and in the future with health sciences, education and policy.”

Alamilla said the culture and location of the Indianapolis campus encourage and provide students with such opportunities. 

Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University “We are in a very unique environment; I think part of that has to do with the fact that the campus is literally next to the statehouse,” he said. “Our campus culture puts a lot of emphasize on being community-oriented and disseminating work to legislators. That’s why I really value being here.”

He said he is excited to learn the day-to-day mechanisms of government through the fellowship, especially the role science plays in policymaking. More importantly, he wants to make a positive impact through his research.

“I hope that by the end of the program, I can point to the product that I helped create and say, ‘This is science-oriented, this is evidence-based, and it’s something that we believe is going to have a broader impact on as many people as possible.’”

The INSPECT Fellowship began in June and wraps up in August.

Tia Broz is a communications consultant in the Office of the Vice President for Communications and Marketing.