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Career Ladder

Career Ladder: Kusai Merchant

A chance encounter at an ACS national meeting led this chemist to a career on Capitol Hill

by Linda Wang
July 10, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 28


Credit: Courtesy of Kusai Merchant
Kusai Merchant fishing in the street as a child.
Credit: Courtesy of Kusai Merchant

Growing up in an immigrant family


Kusai Merchant’s parents are originally from India, but he grew up with his two siblings in Texas and Delaware, where his father was a chemical engineer at DuPont and his mother was a public school teacher. His parents instilled in their children a passion for helping others, and Merchant thought he wanted to be a doctor. “I started college thinking I would be a biology major, but by the time I actually needed to declare it, I switched my focus to chemistry.”

On the path to becoming a research professor


Merchant graduated from Cornell University with an A.B. in chemistry and went on to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry from Stanford University in 2004. His research focused on ultrafast laser spectroscopy methods to study protein systems. After graduating, he moved to Washington, D.C., to start a postdoc at the National Institutes of Health.

A group of people, with Kusai Merchant in a graduation gown
Credit: Courtesy of Kusai Merchant

A taste of working in Congress


While attending the fall 2005 ACS national meeting in Washington, D.C., Merchant had a spare hour, so he decided to attend a symposium on science policy, where he listened to former ACS public policy fellows present about their experiences. After the symposium, Merchant chatted with the then-deputy staff director for the House Science Committee. “I handed him a résumé, and two days later I got an e-mail saying, ‘Congratulations, you’ve been accepted as an intern for the House Science Committee.’ ”

Finding a calling in a policy career


Credit: Courtesy of Kusai Merchant
Kusai Merchant standing in front of the Capitol building.
Credit: Courtesy of Kusai Merchant

He took a leap of faith and took the opportunity, working out the hours with his postdoc adviser. “I started this internship and was totally smitten by it. I fell in love with the immediacy of the policy implications of the work and the myriad ways government can influence people’s lives.” Merchant went on to complete an ACS Congressional Fellowship, working on energy and environment legislation, and then got a job at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Impacting lives through policy


After working in advocacy for six years, Merchant returned to Congress in 2014 as a budget analyst for energy and environment for the U.S. Senate Budget Committee. This past May, he started a new role as senior policy adviser to the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works, where he focuses on hazardous waste and Superfund issues. “It’s very humbling to think that the things you’re working on can have an impact on millions of people. Knowing that you have this ability to effect change, that’s one of the things that’s most rewarding about this job.”

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