Jonathan Schroden was raised in St. Cloud, Minnesota, with a teacher mother and a social worker father. “Growing up I was always interested in math, and I always liked to read and to learn,” he recalls. “And that still carries through to today.” But Schroden never thought his love of math would form the basis of his career.
Inspired by a high school physics and chemistry teacher who focused on hands-on learning, Schroden pursued those two subjects in college at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He went on to earn a PhD in physical chemistry at Cornell University, where he studied the basic physics behind chemical reactions that might help improve metal-based catalysts for industry. Originally, Schroden wanted to become a professor of chemistry. But when he was about to finish graduate school, he couldn’t think of a project that would keep his interest for the next 20 or 30 years. “In my view, if you don’t have that level of passion and dedication to the topic, you are doing yourself a disservice and any students that you may have working for you a disservice as well.”
Schroden had cast a broad net when looking for jobs, and CNA, a nonprofit defense research organization, came to recruit on campus. After learning about a research analyst’s job, which included deploying on Navy ships and solving problems through data analysis, Schroden was sold almost immediately. “It just sounded like a grand adventure,” he says. He still remembers his first experience in the field on a Navy ship. The goal was to help analyze the outcome of an antisubmarine naval exercise. “From the data we gathered, we were able to recreate the paths of the submarines,” he explains. He and his CNA colleagues drew conclusions about the relative efficacy of various submarine detection technologies.
The transition from chemistry to defense analysis involved a steep learning curve at first. But 70% of CNA’s research staff have a PhD degree, and Schroden had great mentors early on. Now leading a team of about a dozen people, Schroden tries to pass on that mentorship. It’s not dissimilar to being the principal investigator of a lab, he says. Since he still gets to work with numbers on a daily basis, Schroden doesn’t really miss being a physical chemist beyond the ability to control every aspect of the data-gathering process. Getting military data in complicated environments—Schroden has recently returned from his 12th trip to Afghanistan—is about trying to “do the best you can with what you get,” he says.
Cici Zhang is a freelance science writer based in Nanjing, China.