In this post, we discuss Dr. Jennifer Pearl’s career path through which she has made significant impact in both the science and policy landscape and enterprise in the U.S. Through leadership positions with the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships Program (AAAS STPF), the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), and the National Science Foundation (NSF), Jennifer’s career spans multiple types of roles in different sectors of society. Read below for a description of Jennifer’s career path, and a Q&A where she reflects on her professional experiences and provides advice for the next generation of science policy leaders.
Author Bio: Dr. Jennifer Pearl is a mathematician and Science and Technology Advisor for the Directorate for Engineering at the National Science Foundation. Prior to this role, she served as the director of the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She has also held positions at the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine and at Rice University. She earned her Ph.D. in mathematics in the field of symplectic geometry from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and a Bachelor of Science in mathematics from Duke University.
Photo credit: AAAS / Kat Song.
Leaving academia to become a policy fellow
Following her PhD training in mathematics, Jennifer took the postdoc route continuing with research and teaching. After a few years, she realized that she wanted to work on problems that were broader than the ones she was tackling in her research career. Through volunteering in the tech transfer office at Rice University, she learned about intellectual property and later engaged in consulting. This experience provided her with a way to learn about the combination of business, law and science. She took a position working for the Dean of Natural Sciences at Rice University, where she developed a new professional master's program funded by the Sloan Foundation. During this time, she helped to create a science policy course for masters students, where she worked with former NSF and OSTP Director Dr. Neal Lane. Dr. Lane encouraged her to apply to the AAAS STPF. She was accepted into the program, and completed her fellowship at the NSF. Through the fellowship, she developed relationships with scientists and engineers who remained her colleagues for many years. She would later return to NSF, where she currently works.
From being a AAAS STPF fellow to the NASEM and NSF
After her AAAS policy fellowship, Jennifer took a position as Program Officer with the Board on Mathematical Sciences and Their Applications (now the Board on Mathematical Sciences and Analytics) at the NASEM, where she worked on studies commissioned by different government agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, Department of Energy, and Department of Defense. These projects taught Jennifer to determine the right people to recruit on committees, as well as the right questions to ask in order to make sure that all relevant voices were represented. At the NASEM, Jennifer also built important professional relationships.
Following her role at the NASEM, Jennifer became a Program Director in the Office of International Science and Engineering at the NSF, where she fostered international collaborations for U.S. researchers and students, and interacted with staff at counterpart foreign funding agencies and embassies in DC. She then transitioned to the NSF’s Division of Mathematical Sciences, where she led programs to support the mathematics and statistics community in the U.S. During this time, she engaged in several professional development experiences, through what is called a “detail,” taking a stint as the Acting Deputy Division Director and leading an effort to understand partnerships for the NSF Office of the Assistant Director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences. These expanded her knowledge and capability, giving her exposure outside her immediate unit.
Following her role as Director of the AAAS STPF Program (in the section below), Jennifer returned to NSF as Science and Technology Advisor for the Directorate for Engineering, which is her current position. In this role, Jennifer is responsible for identifying partners across sectors with similar interests and complementary strengths, and engaging them to advance projects related to engineering research and education. These partners may include other domestic or foreign government agencies, private foundations or industry entities. In addition to developing collaborations with these partners, Jennifer also participates in broader NSF-wide efforts on relevant science and science policy topics.
Leading the AAAS STPF Program
Prior to her current role at NSF, Jennifer was the Director of the AAAS STPF Program, the fellowship program which brought her to DC in the first place. In describing her experience leading the program, Jennifer noted that it was exciting to see this tremendous demand for fellows in federal agencies, and to observe the downstream effects of the fellowship on the careers of alumni over the last 50 years. In this role, Jennifer enhanced the program through building partnerships to support fellows in Congress and led an effort to make the program more data-driven. As part of the latter, she and her team developed a logic model for the program and commissioned the first comprehensive fellowship alumni evaluation to quantify impacts. In terms of challenges for running the program, Jennifer mentioned the need to run a unified initiative while coordinating among the large number of stakeholders, including fellows, government host organizations, partner societies, funders, and the terrific staff that make the whole operation run.
You’ve held several impressive positions throughout your career. What drives you to look for those positions, and do you have a long-term career plan?
I'm a mathematician by training, and I like to look at spaces that are complicated and messy, and put some structure on them. I like to figure out where the opportunities are and where I can have a positive impact. I also look for positive environments where there is a fun problem to solve. And I don't have a career plan - I just look for interesting problems to solve and good people to work on them with. In general, I seek to meet people outside my current work unit or current organization, and try to stay open to professional opportunities.
How has university training been beneficial to your overall career path?
I think an understanding of the research and education process is key to more broadly supporting the science and engineering enterprise. My academic experience has certainly informed my work in all of my positions. And, as they say, a Ph.D. gives you five minutes of credibility in larger discussions. In addition to my background in mathematics, experiences with tech transfer and program development in the university space have provided a broader understanding of how the system functions through exposure to offices outside of traditional academic departments.
Which skills should early career researchers develop if they're interested in a science policy career, or in some of the roles you’ve held in your career?
Both oral and written communication skills are very important. Scientists are usually trained to generate and test hypotheses. However, once you get out of your immediate research space and you're looking to define, implement, or re-envision an initiative, you have to figure out who the main players are, and how to get them on board. So I would suggest that folks seek out that kind of experience even in a volunteer role. In general, when giving career advice, I always advise early career researchers to look for and say yes to new opportunities. Not all jobs will be your dream job, but in any position there will be colleagues you can collaborate with and skills you can learn to help you move to your next role.
Can you recommend resources for early career researchers interested in science policy careers?
I would encourage you to look at the Journal of Science Policy & Governance (JSPG) as a place to publish your policy work, get involved in the science policy section of your disciplinary society, engage with the National Science Policy Network (NSPN), and see what policy resources your university offers. Locally you can also volunteer on policy-related efforts, and get to know your university’s government affairs office for specific connections. More broadly, consider a science policy fellowship like the AAAS STPF or state fellowships, including the California Commission on Science & Technology (CCST) Fellowships Program. I would also read reports such as the Science Policy Career Guide published by CCST, and a blog post by AAAS STPF fellow Steph Guerra, Finding your science policy path is also a helpful resource. Finally, follow science policy social media handles on Twitter, especially @AAAS_STPF, @SciPolJournal, @scipolnetwork, @scipoljobs and others.
Disclaimer: This post represents Jennifer Pearl's personal views and does not reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
Post compiled and edited by Adriana Bankston.