A Year on The Hill

Dr. Mariah Lancaster, V17, serving as AVMA Congressional Fellow for 2023–2024
a smiling individual with dark hair wearing a navy blue suit coat stands in front of the U.S. Capitol, a very large white building.
Dr. Mariah Lancaster, V17, is serving as an AVMA Congressional Fellow in the office of U.S. Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-Minn.). Photo: Joshua Abraham

Dr. Mariah Lancaster (they/their), a 2017 D.V.M. graduate of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, aims to make a difference. Having embarked on a career in wildlife medicine, environmental conservation, and One Health, Dr. Lancaster is serving in the office of U.S. Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) after their selection as the American Veterinary Medical Association’s (AVMA) 2023–24 congressional fellow.

Dr. Lancaster first applied for the AVMA Fellowship in 2018 and was thrilled to secure the coveted position. Serving her 12th term in the U.S. House, Congresswoman McCollum is Ranking Member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and co-chairs the U.S. Congressional International Conservation Caucus, which advances the conservation of natural resources.


“He connected me to my first wildlife internship while I was at UMass, interviewed me for vet school admission, and pointed me toward policy fellowships later on,” Dr. Lancaster explains. “He’s truly been a throughline in my professional career. In times of doubt, he told me to take the leap and learn the rest on the way.”

Mariah Lancaster


In Congress, House offices have a smaller budget and therefore fewer employees than Senate offices, making a fellow’s role more central to the tight-knit team. 

“I cover the Interior and Environment portfolio, as well as the issue sets of animal welfare and wildlife conservation,” Dr. Lancaster said. “Congresswoman McCollum has deep institutional knowledge from her decades in the House and, in determining my placement for the year, it was important that the office’s environmental priorities aligned with my own.” 

Serving in the office of an Appropriator, staff are closely focused on Congressional spending. Dr. Lancaster’s work focuses on the annual ‘Interior Bill’ (Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill), which provides funding for about three dozen agencies and entities. The Interior Bill primarily funds the Department of the Interior, which, in part, includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It also extends to agencies within other departments, such as the U.S. Forest Service (Department of Agriculture) and the Indian Health Service (Department of Health and Human Services), and provides funding for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“As a wildlife veterinarian, some legislative issues are within my existing expertise, while others are brand new to me,” Dr. Lancaster says. “Through this broad exposure to a wide variety of policy issues, this fellowship presents an incredible opportunity to grow.”

Finding their way to Capitol Hill
A native of Lexington, Massachusetts, Mariah first studied music before earning a B.S. in pre-veterinary medicine from UMass Amherst and attending Cummings School. Dr. Mark Pokras, V84, VR88, former director of Tufts Wildlife Clinic, has been a strong mentor from early on. “He connected me to my first wildlife internship while I was at UMass, interviewed me for vet school admission, and pointed me toward policy fellowships later on,” Dr. Lancaster explains. “He’s truly been a throughline in my professional career. In times of doubt, he told me to take the leap and learn the rest on the way.”

Following their graduation from Tufts in 2017, Dr. Lancaster gained experience through a small animal rotating internship at Ocean State Veterinary Specialists (East Greenwich, Rhode Island) and a wildlife and conservation medicine internship at the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife in Sanibel, Florida.

Dr. Lancaster later worked as an emergency relief clinician for referral hospitals throughout New England, volunteered for political campaigns, and served as a member of the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association’s government relations and advocacy committee and the Association of Avian Veterinarians legislative committee.

While striving toward the AVMA congressional fellowship. Dr. Lancaster also applied to be a Science and Technology Policy Fellow, through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). In 2020, they secured a position with the U.S. Department of State and worked for two years at its Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Office of Global Programs and Policy, in Washington, D.C. Dr. Lancaster served as a program officer, managing over $20 million in foreign aid to combat illegal wildlife trafficking and other nature crimes, while also volunteering at a local wildlife clinic to maintain their clinical skills.

“[In the AAAS executive branch fellowship] I learned how to manage federal grants and oversee foreign aid and became familiar with the federal appropriation cycle and budget process, but I remained eager to engage in policy, so I was determined to find my way into the AVMA congressional fellowship.”

Making connections and eyeing the future
With this opportunity, Dr. Lancaster aims to increase the presence of veterinarians in Congress. “Conversations with my former Tufts [Cummings School] professors have helped connect me with their counterparts at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, located in Congresswoman McCollum’s district of Saint Paul.”

“Though there’s a phenomenal network of veterinarians working as civil servants in federal agencies, there aren’t many veterinarians who work in public policy,” they explain. “I’m looking to carve a unique road in that direction.”

As recently as 2018, three veterinarians were serving in the House of Representatives (Dr. Abraham of Louisiana, Dr. Yoho of Florida, and Dr. Schrader of Oregon), but that number narrowed over time and fell to zero in the 118th Congress. “There are currently 19 medical doctors in Congress, but no veterinarians. We know what the issues are for our colleagues, our patients, and our clients. If we don’t get involved at a higher level, how are we going to effectively advocate for their needs?” Dr. Lancaster asks.

In August, the first-ever Senate Veterinary Medicine Caucus was formed to “raise awareness of the multitude of ways veterinarians contribute to society and the important related policy challenges, including a growing shortage of public service and rural large animal veterinarians,” according to the announcement. In no small part, this was due to the efforts of a veterinarian, Dr. Bailey Archey, a legislative assistant in Senator Hyde-Smith’s office.

While a similar caucus in the House dissolved following the loss of the final veterinarian there, Dr. Lancaster hopes to aid the reformation of the House Veterinary Medicine Caucus in the future. “Short of serving in Congress themselves, the caucus shows veterinarians which Representatives are champions of our profession and open to our advocacy,” they say. 

Following the completion of their fellowship in August, Dr. Lancaster sees a couple of possibilities for their immediate future: either staying on Capitol Hill in a staff role or, possibly, running for office themselves.

“If I had the opportunity to stay in D.C., I would love to stay,” they say. “I have a deep appreciation for Congress, and I truly believe that more diverse voices are needed in Washington. In time, I plan to return home to New England and re-engage in local government.” 

Dr. Lancaster explains that to make a difference “you can either advise the decision-makers or become a decision-maker yourself. Veterinarians, and all scientists, have unique insights and perspectives. Our expertise is critical to public policy, and I believe it’s our moral imperative and civic duty to use it for the betterment of our communities and the entire country.”