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One Year Amounts to a Career of Countless Opportunities

By Jennifer Pearl

I am many things: a theater fan, a big-picture thinker, and a mathematician. More specifically, I am a mathematician who takes great joy in working at the intersection of policymaking and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). As director of the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships (STPF) of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)—a program that recruits and places doctoral-level STEM professionals in government agencies—I am fortunate to utilize my background as part of an important opportunity to serve the country.

Mathematicians are in high demand in Washington, D.C. They understand the difference between causation and correlation, and bring a skeptic’s mindset to the table; these characteristics help inform sound policy decisions.

Like math, public policy aims to solve problems — specifically those pertaining to a group of people. One can best solve such challenges by considering all potential impacts and providing evidence for the effectiveness of any given solution. Once a policy is adopted, practitioners must consider issues such as the allocation and distribution of resources necessary to achieve a goal. Government policymaking runs the gamut of societal affairs, from education and defense to fiscal practices and human health. The latest advancements in mathematical methods contribute to better the government through modeling, problem-solving, economic decision-making, and risk assessment. The result is a government in constant (and growing) need of analytical expertise.

Mathematical physicist and STPF fellow Gordon Aiello spoke aptly about the matter. “A common thread among applied mathematicians is a desire to work on stimulating, interdisciplinary questions that arise from real-world demands,” he said. “The scope and magnitude of the challenges being addressed at the federal level provide fellows with a treasure trove of topics to pursue and learn from — with the added benefit of knowing that their work will be used to inform policy for the sake of our nation’s posterity.” Aiello began his placement at the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Office of Monetary Affairs in September.

The STPF program offers participants hands-on professional development in public policy and provides the government with increased access to STEM professionals. Fellows develop the critical ability to communicate recommendations and solutions in all settings, ranging from the policy world to private and multilateral sectors. They also make connections that expand their professional networks by an order of magnitude!

Fellows are outstanding mathematicians, statisticians, scientists, and engineers at any career stage — from newly-minted Ph.D.s to seasoned professionals. The yearlong program runs from September through August and enrolls over 250 individuals who represent a broad range of backgrounds and disciplines.

More than two dozen scientific partner societies sponsor fellowship placements in Congress. SIAM works with other mathematical and computer science organizations to recruit data science fellows, and the American Mathematical Society (AMS) finances a congressional fellow. The AAAS sponsors numerous placements in Congress and roughly 20 executive and judicial branch agencies each year, which are open to professionals from all STEM disciplines.

Fellows are sprinkled across Washington in all three branches of government, where they work on nearly every issue under the sun. There is no one “typical” fellowship, though all involve an immersive experience that teaches participants to utilize analytical skills for the betterment of the country and introduces them to a lifelong network of scientists with similar motivations.

As a fellow in the Department of Defense’s Office of International Cooperation, Jessica Libertini coordinated the signing of the Chapeau Agreement that allows for the U.S. and the Netherlands to more rapidly enter into bilateral defense cooperation agreements. The treaty was signed by the ambassadors and witnessed by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Here Libertini fills in the treaty’s date and location information at the Dutch Embassy. Photo courtesy of Jessica Libertini.
Applied mathematician and faculty member Jessica Libertini recently completed a fellowship with a plan to return to academia and help applied mathematics and engineering students consider a broader set of career paths. As a fellow in the DoD’s Office of International Cooperation, she strengthened DoD links with foreign partners in places like Indonesia, Singapore, and Lithuania, and coordinated a bilateral treaty between the U.S. and the Netherlands. “I am now equipped to teach math using problems that are not only meaningful, but also couched in realistic ways,” she said. “These problems demonstrate the value of mathematics far better than pushing symbols around a page. My students may be involved in policy one day, and I want to increase the chances of mathematicians making impactful decisions.”

Sponsored by the AMS, applied mathematician Margaret Callahan served one year in the office of Senator Amy Klobuchar, where she quickly got up to speed on her portfolio issues: education, workforce development, and public health. Callahan is currently a fellow at the U.S. Department of State, where she evaluates data on global conflict and protests in Venezuela and the Central African Republic to map international security challenges and inform policy development. She credits the fellowship for providing her with an opportunity to advocate for science and bring scientific rigor to the policymaking process.

During his fellowship at the National Science Foundation (NSF) Directorate for Computer & Information Science & Engineering, algebraist Tyler Kloefkorn witnessed firsthand both the NSF’s methods to support basic research in science, as well as mathematics’ value in science and science policy. He also learned how to integrate best practices in education and research from the larger science arena into the mathematics discipline. Partly due to his experience at the NSF, Kloefkorn now routinely uses linear algebra and statistics to better understand problems and communicate solutions. Today he is a program officer at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

After completing the program, STPF fellows become members of a closely-knit corps of 3,000+ alumni comprised of policy-savvy STEM leaders in academia, government, industry, and nonprofit arenas. The STPF alumni body includes numerous noteworthy names. Karoline Pershell—current executive director of the Association for Women in Mathematics—served in the U.S. Department of State and now directs strategy and evaluation at a technology company. Carla Cotwright worked in the U.S. Senate and is presently a data scientist at the DoD. In 2015, former DoD fellow DJ Patil was appointed as the nation’s first-ever chief data scientist, a position he held for two years. Catherine Paolucci served as a fellow in Congress and at the NSF, and recently accepted a faculty position at the University of Florida.

It is worth mentioning that I, too, was a STPF fellow! The fellowship opened my eyes to the amazing breadth of work and expertise required by the federal government, and became a pivotal point in my career.

The great thing about mathematics is that there is no limit to the number of ways one can use it. Some element of math is baked into nearly everything, like federal agencies’ allocation of funds to improve health, or modeling the optimal supply of passports for individuals whose identification was lost in national disasters. Additionally, the broader ability to examine an ill-defined or complicated system and create some structure to help understand it is valuable in all areas of government.

The question is, what do you want to do with your math? Do you want to understand how your skills can be beneficial in a federal context? Are you interested in helping shape good policy? Learn more about STPF fellowships or register for a live chat with fellows. The deadline to apply for fellowships is November 1.

Jennifer Pearl is director of the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships (STPF) program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Prior to coming to the AAAS, Pearl spent 12 years at the National Science Foundation, where she served in the Division of Mathematical Sciences and the Office of International Science & Engineering. She was an AAAS STPF fellow from 2002 to 2003.

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