Building Health Equity: Grace Wickerson

04.30.24 | 3 min read | Text by Jonathan Wilson

By their own account, Grace Wickerson was always an organizer and activist for societal progress. As early as high school, Grace educated peers about interpersonal violence, even convincing their school board to require high school students to complete a violence reduction class. 

But what attracted them to FAS’ Day One Project three years ago was the possibility of pushing for change at the federal level.

“I think the federal government is like this daunting kind of conglomerate that is very confusing to navigate,” Wickerson says. “It’s very hard to know where you can actually make a substantial impact.”

Wickerson was a few years into their doctoral work in material science and engineering at Northwestern University when the prospect of learning how to write a policy memo with FAS cropped up at a National Science Policy Network virtual conference.

Like Christopher Gillespie – they became part of Day One’s Early Career Science Policy Accelerator and published their policy memo “Combating Bias in Medical Innovation”, which highlighted the ongoing lack of diversity in federally-funded clinical trial pools, and the downstream impacts of that lack.

Wickerson then went on to become a Policy Entrepreneurship Fellow with FAS, and used the time and mentorship to meet with lawmakers and federal officials. Their work even led the University of Maryland Medical Systems (UMMS) and medical-records corporation EPIC to commissioning studies to explore the connection between COVID-19 deaths and inaccurate pulse oximeters (pulse ox) due to racial bias in current pulse oximeter technology.

Wickerson says one thing that most academics – and even many others with an interest in policy – don’t understand is that no matter how great an idea is, it won’t make a difference if it isn’t seen by the right people.

“I think the thing that’s often missing is the platform for that policy recommendation,” Wickerson says. “You need a place for your recommendations to live – a place through which they will be seen and regarded.”

Another thing that FAS helped with, Wickerson says, is a complicated thing that can be summed up in one word: confidence. 

“I think there was a lot of necessary confidence building in terms of being ready to reach out to a lot of different stakeholders – and just getting the chutzpah to just go for it,” they say. 

Wickerson is still very interested in fighting for change in the way the government regulates medical devices – but they’ve also expanded their portfolio to different types of health policy as FAS’ first full-time Health Equity Policy manager. A particular focus now is the health impacts of extreme heat.

“There are a lot of people with great ideas,” Wickerson says. “But often, the actual route to implementation is a much harder and more committed path. I think the framework of policy entrepreneurship is really about making ideas happen, and finding all the different routes to seeing something to fruition. It provides that framework that often doesn’t exist for folks wanting to make a change in the world but don’t know how that happens. That’s how it’s impacted my life: it gives me the hope and belief that things can actually change. There’s just a need for a person behind that change.”