Early-career scientists are increasingly gravitating toward science policy, but the transition from the research bench to the policy office can be a tricky one. What can that path look like, and how can chemistry knowledge translate into a successful science policy career? In this bonus episode of C&EN’s Bonding Time, Mark Feuer DiTusa, then audio editor at C&EN, sits down with science PhD graduates and science policy professionals Jennifer DiStefano and Jared Mondschein to hear about their intertwined journeys, what science policy looks like for them, and how they think policy is shaping the direction of chemistry in the US.
Executive producer: Gina Vitale
Writer: Mark Feuer DiTusa
Audio editor: Mark Feuer DiTusa, Brian Gutierrez
Story editor: Ariana Remmel
Copyeditor: Sabrina Ashwell, Michael McCoy
Show logo design: William A. Ludwig
Episode artwork: William A. Ludwig
Music (in order of appearance): “The Beat Detector” by Novembers, “Sugar Cubes” by Avner Kelmer
Contact Stereo Chemistry: Tweet at us at @cenmag or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The following is a transcript of the episode. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Jennifer DiStefano: Do you feel like you do policy? And how would you describe your role in policy?
Jared Mondschein: What do you mean by doing policy?
Jennifer: Whatever you think that means?
Mark Feuer DiTusa: That was Jennifer DiStefano and Jared Mondschein, two scientists who have built their careers around a part of the scientific process that’s often overlooked: science policy. This is a bonus episode of aStereo Chemistryseries that we like to call Bonding Time, where we feature scientists in conversation with each other and explore the ties that bind them. Just a quick note, Jennifer’s and Jared’s opinions and views are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of their employers.
I’m your host, Mark Feuer DiTusa, Stereo Chemistry’s audio editor. Today, Jared and Jennifer will take us through what “doing policy” looks like for them, how they got started in the field, and how their backgrounds in physical science have helped them get where they are today.
Jennifer DiStefano has a PhD in nanomaterials and is now a solar technical adviser for a contractor called Boston Government Services. She also collaborates with the Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office.
Jennifer: A lot of acronyms in there that I will spare you of but at the end of the day, my job is really to provide technical support to the solar office. That’s part of DOE. And that could be through the form of working directly with an awardee who’s received government funding and helping to guide the technical progress of that project, or providing technical input to some of my colleagues on the strategy of what types of programs, you know, we want to think about down the road.
Mark: Jared Mondschein has a PhD in inorganic chemistry and is a physical scientist at Rand Corporation, which is a nonpartisan nonprofit that conducts research and analysis and supportive evidence-based decision-making.
Jared: For the most part, my research portfolio tends to focus on looking at supply chain issues of emerging technologies, typically through the lens of strategic competition with China. But my work has also been really broad. I’ve done work on smart cities. I’m a member of the World Economic Forum’s G-20 Global Smart Cities Alliance working group.
Jennifer: I didn’t know that.
Jared: Oh, yeah.
Jennifer: Very cool.
Jared: Yeah, it’s pretty fun. We develop model smart city policies for implementation by cities around the world. I’ve also done work on synthetic opioids policy. There’s a big public report that Rand published a year and a half ago in support of a Congressional investigation into synthetic opioids, and everything in between that.
Mark: When I spoke with Jennifer and Jared, we started the conversation by talking about how the two of them first met in their intersecting paths into science policy.
Jennifer: I was a graduate student at Northwestern University, doing my graduate studies in materials science and engineering and started to become interested in science policy. And as a result, started networking with people in the field. And one of my methods for doing that was literally sending cold messages to people on LinkedIn, who seemed to have a relevant background, and that I thought there was a chance that they might answer me.
And so one day, I was snooping on LinkedIn and stumbled across Jared’s LinkedIn profile, saw that he was at the time at Penn State, which is where I had done my undergraduate studies, and that he was, I believe, at the time, the president of the science policy group at Penn State.
Jennifer: And so I thought, there’s a reasonable chance that he will respond to me because we have that Penn State connection and thought he would be a good person to talk to. And so I reached out sort of on a limb and Jared responded. And ever since then, we’ve been connections in the career space, and also since then became good friends.
Jared: Yeah, I was so excited when you reached out to me. So I was in my first job in science policy at the time, which was a really small think tank in Northern Virginia. And I felt like, “wow,” like someone in graduate school wants to be me when they grow up, or at least be in this career path.
And it’s something I’ve gotten really passionate about, because as a graduate student, in science—at least in chemistry, seems like in material science as well—we don’t really learn much about careers beyond academia, national labs. And so I’ve gotten passionate about helping other graduate students learn more about this career path. And so I was excited that Jen, I think, was the first one to reach out to me for that conversation.
Jennifer: I didn’t know I was the first one. That’s great.
Jennifer: That’s great.
Mark (in interview): When you go into a science PhD, I don’t think many people go into it going, “And I want to end up in science policy,” right? Like, it’s not the most direct route. And so I’m curious, what drove you in that direction?
Jared: So I think when I started graduate school, I didn’t know I wanted to go into science policy. But I think that’s because I didn’t know the career path existed. I think, in hindsight, it was like, yes, clearly, I’ve wanted to go into science policy.
I think my light switch moment in graduate school was when I was grading papers and watching the West Wing. And President Bartlett was in the Oval Office, getting a briefing from a climate scientist about how floods that had, like, wiped out a town in the south, were caused by climate change. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, scientists can do this? Like what is this career path?” And then at Penn State I ended up having a lot of really exciting opportunities to come to Capitol Hill, to engage with people in this career path and learn more about it, and then ultimately make that transition.
Jennifer: That’s really interesting. I didn’t, I didn’t know that the West Wing inspired some of your interests here.
Jared: Oh yeah. I’m here because of the West Wing.
Jennifer: Because of President Bartlett. Love it.
For me, I feel like a little bit similar to Jared, always had an interest in politics and current events, and also took, like, an international relations class in college. And again, definitely started grad school without any knowledge that there was such a thing as science policy, per se. I pursued a PhD because I really loved science. And at the time, thought I wanted to be a researcher the rest of my life. And that was my rationale.
I learned from a graduate student who was more senior in my program that science policy existed, and she had done a science policy fellowship and told me a little bit about that. So it was sort of in the back of my mind starting out from my first year in graduate school. And as I continued through my PhD research and learned that, you know, maybe I don’t want to be at the bench the rest of my life, I think I became increasingly more interested in that science policy career path. And as a result, then, you know, started tailoring my skills and experiences towards those that would be useful for a policy career.
Jared: It’s really hard to learn about the career path. I didn’t know that science policy was a word going into graduate school. And at least in most chemistry programs, I would say that the emphasis is on, or maybe even the assumption, is that you’re either going to go be an academic, or you’re going to work in industry, or you’ll be in a government lab. And I knew going into graduate school I was not interested in any of those three options. And so I think learning about what else was out there was really challenging.
I think negotiating the time to go explore those career paths is also really challenging. Your mile may vary depending on your adviser and your program, to be able to take a break from the bench to go explore, either through extracurricular activity outside the bench, or even taking the summer off from, from the lab and coming to DC, or doing state-level fellowships. There’s a couple other things, I think, but, Jen, what do you think?
Jennifer: Yeah, I think I would phrase it as the information gap, in particular, in terms of what you need, like what skills you need to be cultivating for a successful career, when you first graduate from grad school with your physical science PhD in hand, like, what are those things that would make you attractive to potential science policy employers or people who run the fellowships?
And that was really a black box to me for a while, like, I knew that it was something broadly I wanted to go into, but I really didn’t have clarity on what I needed to get there. And also what there really meant going back to, more broadly the wide range of options within science policy and all the different types of organizations and type of technical level in different roles that one could pursue in this space. And so for, I’d say, a lot of my PhD, I knew I wanted to go into science policy, but had no further clarity on what that really meant.
Jared: How well aligned do you think are the set of skills that you need, or needed to transition into this career path, and the skills that you needed to finish your PhD?
Jennifer: That’s an interesting question. I mean, I do think there’s more overlap than people might think. I think that, during my PhD, I generally am interested in science communication and writing. And so I did tend towards doing the workshops, and the written papers for the public and things like that, that were sort of naturally of interest to me, and also very valuable skills in policy.
Jared: But that’s not, those are not core areas for a PhD, right?
Jennifer: They’re not. And so right, I think a lot of the project management skills for finishing your PhD, getting it over the finish line, making sure you’re going to submit your defense on schedule, and you have all your experiments sort of scheduled and balanced such that you get the results when you need them. I think that is definitely an element that’s useful, probably in most career paths, but especially science policy in my experience.
I’d say the other big one I would point to is collaborations and relationship building, which I did a lot of during my PhD. I think that it’s fairly common to do that, because not every lab can do everything. Being able to talk to people from different backgrounds and understand different perspectives, and then go beyond understanding and actually work together and have a fruitful relationship and partnership with those folks, I think is really critical in a lot of science policy roles. And is something that at least the foundation for that skill set I think is often developed during a PhD.
Jared: I agree.
Jennifer: Yeah, anything you’d add?
Jared: I think collaboration, teamwork, leadership, project management is critical. I think the foundation of a PhD is ultimately knowing what you don’t know. And then figuring out a way to mitigate those gaps, to fill those knowledge gaps.
Jared: I think that’s been critical in our career paths. I think looking back at graduate school, I remember being really stressed out about the number of papers that I needed to get to, to be viewed as successful, to think of myself as successful, to ultimately get out of my PhD program. I think looking back on it, that was probably the . . . that had the smallest contribution to my ability to get into my career path. I think it’s all those extracurriculars, the mentoring undergraduate and high school students, work collaborating with other research labs.
Jared: I think that those have been really critical. Was there anything that surprised you about the career path so far? Anything that, you feel like, “Wow, Jared, you should have told me that in that first phone call!”
Jennifer: That’s an interesting question. I honestly don’t remember our first phone call, maybe, in quite enough detail to answer that specifically. I will say, one thing that has struck me is the wide array of different types of careers in science policy. I didn’t realize, even within government, the different types of roles that one could have, ranging in terms of different degrees of how technical a role is or how much policy there is in a particular role. And so I think that’s definitely an element that I just didn’t realize how, how much diversity of the types of roles there was in the field of science policy.
Jared: That you could be at the bench, or you could be in the halls of Congress.
Jared: And everything in between.
Jennifer: Right, exactly. Yeah. What about you? I’m curious.
Jared: I think what surprised me, is the diversity of work that you can do as a chemist in this career path. I’ve done work on everything from synthetic opioid supply chains, all the way out to artificial intelligence policy. I think the second thing that’s really struck me is the compensation level, I think, so I was expecting to enter the nonprofit space, to enter the public policy space from this, me stereotyping it as, “I am not going to make anywhere near as much as I would in chemical industry.” And I think that paradigm for me has completely shifted where a lot of think tanks, government contractors, in which you can do science policy, are extremely competitive with the chemical industry. And that’s really surprised me.
Mark: That was just the first part of my conversation with Jennifer DiStefano and Jared Mondschein about their transition from the lab to the policy desk. Let’s take a quick break, and when we come back Jared and Jennifer will talk about how their chemistry education impacts their work, what shock waves may be coming for chemistry from new policy, and just how many acronyms you have to memorize.
Craig Bettenhausen: Hi there C&EN listeners, this is Craig Bettenhausen popping in to tell you about another ongoing multimedia project we have atChemical & Engineering News. And this one’s interactive! Chemistry in Pictures is our twice-weekly photo feature, where we share captivating chemistry images along with a short caption. You’ll see Chempics posts on our social media, in the print edition, in calendars, and even printed in large format and presented as an in-person art exhibition! About half the images we feature come from readers and listeners just like you.
To submit your photo, microscope image, or other cool, chemistry-themed pic, visitcen.chempics.org—that’s cen.chempics.org—and click “submit your photo.” It can be anything that’s visually interesting and has a good connection with chemistry or an allied scientific field. We’ve done crystals, needlepoint, electron microscope images, glassware glamour shots—you name it. Just fill out the form to tell us a little about you and what you’re sending in, then upload your image. I and the rest of the Chempics team look forward to seeing what you’ve got!
Now, back to the podcast.
Mark: Before the break, we heard from Jennifer and Jared about how they learned about the possibility of a career in science policy, how that led to their meeting, and what skills they feel like they transferred from their science PhDs into their policy offices. In the second part of the show, we’ll hear about some of the bumps in the road they encountered getting their start, how research in chemistry may respond to trends in policy, and how much of their chemistry PhD they bring to bear in their work. Let’s get back to our conversation.
Jared: What about challenges when you first started? I remember just the sheer number of acronyms.
Jennifer: Oh, yes.
Jared: Just having to learn all about government and how things get done, how to help the government get things done.
Jennifer: I’m still learning how the government works. And the number of acronyms is yes, absolutely insane. I actually just asked my mentor today about a new one that I hadn’t seen yet after working with the Department of Energy for 9 months. So those sorts of things are always an ever going challenge, I would say, because there’s, these are large, complex entities that operate in a lot of different ways, depending on what agency you’re talking about, or part of government or part of the NGO space even, that all serve very different roles a lot of times.
Jared: I remember it being really challenging to learn about all the different levers that are active and try to learn about the different politics that are associated with agencies and offices with them in those agencies, at sub offices and learning about all the layers of a bureaucracy.
Jennifer: Yeah, absolutely. I remember at one point, so I like to think in a very structured manner, as you surely know by now, and I remember asking someone that I was on a networking call with if she could give me like the categories of organizations within science policy to pursue—like I knew government was one, and now I know government is many actually small ones. I knew think tanks were one but that was a bit of an amorphous definition to me. And she was essentially like, “No, there’s not a simple way to describe this. There’s a whole variety of organizations that touch science policy in so many different ways.” And also, a lot of it comes down to what you consider science policy at the end of the day as well, which people definitely have different definitions of.
Jennifer: Jared, I’m curious, your perspective on how much of your day-to-day chemistry knowledge you think is used in your current role versus, more broadly, your problem solving skills? Because for me, I feel like a lot of my materials science knowledge is applied on a daily basis, in addition to, you know, more generally learning about new topics. But what do you, what would you say?
Jared: I think for me, it’s very project dependent. I think for when I’m working with city officials on technology adoption, I’m probably using 0% chemistry, 100% project management and collaboration.
Jared: I think when I’m working on projects related to battery supply chain problems, that’s probably more, stretching more towards my technical expertise where I can start to understand how batteries work, how some of these other technologies work, to then be able to understand some of the opportunities and drawbacks I think of those technologies that are really important for decision makers to understand.
Jennifer: So it sounds like you effectively maybe transition from almost more of a science generalist to a subject matter focused chemist, depending on the project. Would you say that’s fair?
Jared: Totally, I think there are many hats that need to be worn.
Jared: Sometimes at the same time, right, sometimes it’s very quickly jumping back and forth between being a science generalist and needing to understand the implications of these new artificial intelligence algorithms, versus going very deep and needing to understand semiconductor fabrication routes.
Jennifer: Right. And I think it’s interesting, because in my experience at a small clean energy think tank, my role was very much more that science generalist, research generalist, where I was not on a daily basis, hardly at all using my materials science expertise and background. And so that is something that has been really different for me since moving over to Boston Government Services and providing support to the Department of Energy, where I am, and I think I was largely hired because of my materials science background, and that specific expertise that I’m bringing, again, because of my background in characterization, and imaging and crystal growth. And so I do think that really exemplifies in a lot of ways the range of technical, maybe “depth” is the right word, that one can see in a science policy career where you can go from being never talking about your, the details of your PhD topic again, to really focusing on that in a government setting.
Jared: I think that’s one of the really beautiful things about a science policy career path is that it truly is “choose your own adventure.” That you can go as deep technically on any one topic, or you can be very broad and stretch across the realms of science, even going beyond chemistry.
Jennifer: Do you feel like you are informing policy? Or how would you describe your role’s relationship to policy?
Jared: I think I see the nuance that you’re trying to draw. I think I agree with your interpretation that I’m doing science policy, but I’m not doing the science policy. If that makes sense. I think my career path is science policy.
Jared: But me at a think tank, I am not the one creating and implementing policy. I think I am assisting, I’m providing evidence to best guide the development and implementation and often evaluation of the policy.
Jared: But I see my role at a think tank of there being a very clear barrier between supporting the policy, versus doing the policy.
Mark (in interview): From your science policy perch, where do you think chemistry is going? Where, what is the focus? And obviously, materials science chemistry, like you’re going to have one view of that, but I’m just curious what you guys think.
Jared: I think thinking about science as a whole has historically been very open. And scientists benefit from collaborating with talent, equipment, ideas around the world to advance our science. It’s something that I think we both did as PhD students. And I think it’s usually foundational to advancing science and doing what we’re passionate about. But I think, from the federal government’s perspective, and we saw this recently with the Department of Justice’s China Initiative in which a couple of really well known and well respected chemists got wrapped up in a federal probe because they were collaborating with a foreign country that may or may not have had nefarious goals for that collaboration. I think it’s sort of a brave new world out there. And this is sort of a pivot point, like profound. Mic drop. Again, that’s not the future of science, I think it’s more of a concern of “how do we maintain open the spirit of science of being open and collaborative and doing work for the benefit of society?”
Jennifer: And I think that’s one of those policy for science questions. Right, which I think, is another avenue within science policy that we haven’t even touched on yet is the policies that impact how science is done. And so I’ve seen this a lot around diversity in STEM, and how do we make sure we’re, you know, facilitating a very inclusive environment for both young aspiring scientists all the way through PhD students. And I think there is a lot of open questions there that the science and policy and science policy worlds are going to have to grapple with, along with this question that Jared posed, to make sure that science is being done as efficiently and properly as really can be.
Jared: I think that’s also part of the exciting opportunities, maybe thinking about paradigm shifts in how science is being done. I think graduate school has historically been extremely toxic environment for a lot of students that end up struggling with mental health conditions, or yeah, with their mental health.
Jennifer: Power dynamics with faculty members.
Jared: Right. And I think we’re starting to see a paradigm shift now. And I think there’s more of a focus, at least at the federal level, with respect to how the federal government is funding science on equitable funding on making sure that the pathways to entering PhD programs, finishing your PhD, choosing your career path, whether it’s in industry or academia, become more equitable.
Jennifer: And even going beyond that, or going like beyond academia alone, I think the federal government also is doing work to facilitate the inclusion of more diverse folks in technical projects, you know, across the board, and that I think, while it doesn’t maybe impact PhD or graduate students directly, is absolutely still encouraging that pipeline of the need for more diverse scientists. And especially in climate change, like, it’s an all hands on deck situation. And we need all the brightest minds if we’re going to solve this. And so, I think, looking and you know, bringing folks into science who are interested in science, even who don’t have a scientist in their family and such, I think is really critical.
Mark: If you’re interested in learning more about career opportunities in the wide world of science policy, you can reach out to Jennifer and Jared on LinkedIn; we’ll include links to their profiles in the show notes. And if you’d like to hear more firsthand stories of what it’s like on the policy side of science, check out ourbonus episode from February 21, 2020, whenStereo Chemistryspoke with six chemists about their year-long science policy fellowships in Washington, DC. We’ll link to that too. Special thanks to Jennifer and Jared for taking the time to join us in theStereo Chemistrystudio.
This episode of Stereo Chemistry was written and produced by me, Mark Feuer DiTusa. Gina Vitale edited this episode. Full credits for this episode are in the show notes.
Stereo Chemistryis the official podcast ofChemical & Engineering News. C&EN is an independent news outlet published by the American Chemical Society. Thanks for listening.