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Hill Climbers: Better Chemistry Through Football

Growing up in Alabama, Ben Dunham was more into sports than he was into school.

Dunham, now the legislative director for Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), remembers thinking that it would be football rather than physics class that would ultimately pay off.

“It was definitely more valuable to be good at sports than good at academics,” he said of the public school he attended. Although he dabbled in basketball and baseball, Dunham ultimately stuck with football, which he played throughout high school and into college and envisioned one day playing or coaching professionally.

Inspired by his mother, a high school dropout who returned to school and would go on to get her law degree, Dunham realized the importance of education. When he did well on the SATs, he decided he could excel at academics as well as athletics and started thinking about going to college. 

Dunham first went to the University of Mississippi, where he played wide receiver for the Rebels. After his sophomore year, he gave up football and transferred to the University of Alabama to study English and philosophy, which he called “degrees to learn how to learn.”

“I didn’t really expect to end up working in politics,” he said of his mindset at the time. But after taking the LSATs on a whim and entering the University of North Carolina’s law school, his attitude began to change.

After earning his law degree in 2005, Dunham went to work for U.S. Public Interest Research Group as a staff attorney and environmental lobbyist. There, he worked on environmental issues, including climate change, before moving to the environmental law firm Earthjustice in 2007. 

And despite never envisioning himself working in politics, “it was then that I realized that the way you could really make a difference was … actually writing the law,” he said.

His time working in environmental law inspired him to take an interest in the regulatory regime for chemical safety, which made him a good fit to move to Lautenberg’s office in 2009.

“We don’t have a system for separating those that are harmful from those that are helpful,” he said.

As an example, he cited the flame retardants found in everyday items as an example of a chemical that falls into the first category but is often thought of as belonging to the latter.

Although chemical regulation and college football may seem different, there are some parallels between the two for Dunham. 

“If you’re not going all out, it’s going to catch up with you,” he said of politics and football. Like on the Hill, he said, you have to fully dedicate yourself to every play, even though there’s no guarantee that it will result in a touchdown or the ball will even be thrown to you. 

And while he might not be doing it professionally, Dunham still finds time to play football on four flag football teams. When he’s not working, watching college football or checking his fantasy team, he is drawing up plays. “They take it very seriously,” he said.


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