Miranda Paley didn’t really know what she wanted to do with her life when she started at Grinnell College. But the professor teaching her organic chemistry lab noted her knack for bench work and suggested she get involved in research. Her first research experience, at the University of Kansas in the summer of 2007, was remarkably smooth: in 10 weeks, she collected enough data to earn her the second author spot on a paper. “I didn’t know how rare that is” at the time, she says. “That’s what I thought chemistry was.” Her plans for a second summer of research were derailed when her mother was diagnosed with cancer, but she still got into several PhD programs.
Paley started grad school at the University of California, Irvine, at the beginning of 2010, shortly after her mother’s death. She was the first graduate student in Jenn Prescher’s lab, where she worked on designing bioluminescent probes for live animal imaging. Working with a new principal investigator from “day subzero” was a lot different from the smooth sailing of her undergrad research, but Paley says Prescher was a remarkaby supportive adviser. Midway through her PhD, Paley decided she wanted to explore science communications, and Prescher encouraged her to apply to internships. She ended up at Janssen Pharmaceuticals for 3 months in 2014 doing communications and project management—and she took to it. “Turns out I really love checklists,” she says.
After defending her thesis, Paley was hired as a managing editor and helped launch the open-access journal ACS Central Science (ACS publishes C&EN). “It was a lot of different hats,” Paley says. But she loved the people she got to collaborate with, including her “academic grandmother,” Carolyn Bertozzi. After a couple of years, Paley got the opportunity to manage a second journal and its staff. But the promotion came with a lot of additional stress, she says, and she began feeling burnt out.
Looking for a change, Paley (shown with her son) accepted a science policy fellowship with the office of the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Environment and Energy Resilience, where she worked on scientific policy and community engagement on issues like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). At the DOD, she found that she enjoyed applying her communications and research skills to policy issues. Paley says one of her proudest achievements was helping draft a memo for the Secretary of Defense outlining plans for a PFAS task force. She now works for the science and technology consulting firm Noblis, where she lends her biochemistry, communications, policy, and project management expertise to the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate. Through all her different roles, she says, she has been able to adapt her experience to solve new problems by finding the common ground between different areas of science.
This article was updated on Oct. 3, 2022, to change the heading for the last section from “An interest in communications” to “Passion for policy” to better reflect that section’s content.