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A chemist at the intersection of science and policy

Profile: Stefanie Bumpus (Ph.D., 2010), AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow

Today I’d like to introduce you to a Ph.D. chemist who is currently a Science & Technology (S&T) Fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)—Stefanie Bumpus.

Stefanie has been working for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) as an S&T Fellow since September 2010.

Day to day, Stefanie’s work varies considerably—it all depends on what assignment she has at the time.

Some days she is working on building good working relationships with U.S. Government and international partners and collaborators. “This includes things such as conducting meetings to discuss planned or ongoing projects, or working to develop strategic documents for the program,” Stefanie says.

Stefanie Bumpus: Ph.D. chemist and AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow. Courtesy photo.

There are four different concentration areas of the fellowship:

  1. Congressional
  2. Health, Education, and Human Services
  3. Diplomacy, Security, and Development
  4. Energy, Environment, and Agriculture.

As an S&T policy fellow on the Diplomacy, Security, and Development track at the DoD, Stefanie supports the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs (NCB).

Within the NCB, Stefanie is currently doing a rotation in the Office of Threat Reduction and Arms Control (TRAC). As a part of this rotation, she supports a program that “works to ensure international partner governments have the capacity to detect, report, and respond to biological incidents as efficiently and effectively as possible,” Stefanie says.

At the TRAC office, one of Stefanie’s roles is to work with the partner governments to “ensure laboratories and other facilities maintain the highest sustainable levels of biosafety and biosecurity,” she explains.

One of Stefanie’s favorite parts of her job thus far is being able to travel the world. Continue reading →

Opportunities for chemists in science policy

A science policy fellowship might be the first step to making the move from the bench toward Capitol Hill. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons User Elliot P.

Here at JAEP

we’ve been on the topic of government jobs for chemists.

Glen wrote a post about a website, INSPIRE, that is full of information about government jobs for scientists. It is being piloted for a short time, so if you haven’t yet, check it out here and take the survey to help them improve the site. And earlier this week, I introduced you to Olen Stephens, a Ph.D. chemist who works for the FDA in regulatory affairs.

Today, we will segue a bit and discuss the field of science policy.

What is science policy?

Science policy is a field that is difficult to define because it encompasses lots of different types of work at the intersection of science and public policy. I’ll use an excerpt from an article I found by Geoffrey Hunt to break the common misconceptions about science policy:

Most people assume policymakers spend all of their time furtively hammering out laws in back rooms. In reality, those working in science policy have the opposite job: They take what is happening on the bench and bring it to the light of day… Science policy experts …[use] their talents to find ways to translate esoteric, often highly technical scientific issues into something that can be sold as good policy.”

For more information on science policy careers, check out the following Science Careers articles: Continue reading →

Ensuring drug safety: A chemist in regulatory affairs

Profile: Olen Stephens, Ph.D. chemist, chemical and manufacturing controls reviewer at the Food and Drug Administration.

Olen Stephens (center), with his two sons, Sean (left) and Coby (right). Courtesy photo.

A few weeks back, Glen wrote a post about a website, INSPIRE, which is chock-full of information about government jobs for scientists. If you haven’t yet, check it out here. There’s still time to take the survey that will help them improve their site.

As promised, here is the first of two profile posts about chemists currently working for the federal government. Today I’d like you to meet Olen Stephens, a Ph.D. chemist who works in regulatory affairs.

From academia into government

Olen Stephens always thought he wanted to be a college professor, but after giving it a try, he realized it wasn’t the job for him.

Now he works in regulatory affairs at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and says he loves his job and the work-life balance it allows him.

I should also mention that Olen and I share a family connection. He’s my mother-in-law’s sister’s son, a.k.a. my husband’s cousin!

Olen was a double major in chemistry and biology at Earlham College and went on to get a Ph.D. in biological chemistry from the University of Utah (2004). After a postdoc in biophysical chemistry at Yale University, he landed a tenure-track professorship position at his alma mater, Earlham College.

As a chemistry professor, Olen taught organic chemistry, biochemistry and general chemistry. But the job was “not a good fit on either side,” he says.

“Teaching wasn’t what I thought it was,” Olen says. The combination of teaching, grant writing, and conducting research left little time to spend with his wife and newborn son.

At the same time, Olen says he wasn’t interested in working in industry either.

In his first year teaching at Earlham, Olen met another Earlham alumnus who worked at the FDA.  Later, when Olen was looking for a career change, she told him about a position they were looking to fill. Five months later, Olen had landed the job and his family moved to the Washington, D.C. area, and the rest is history.

Regulatory affairs– What’s that all about?

Olen has been working as a chemical and manufacturing controls reviewer since 2008 and finds his career both challenging and rewarding.

At the FDA, Olen works as part of a team to review drug applications and identify safety issues that need to be addressed before drugs can be administered to humans. Continue reading →

Website helps scientists learn about careers within Federal agencies

As an individual currently employed in the private sector, I must admit to a wide breadth of ignorance regarding what employment opportunities may exist for a scientist within a Federal government agency.

It would I appear that my own personal lack of knowledge regarding government science positions is shared by many others, and this has not gone unnoticed by the very Federal agencies who are in need of top scientists to fill these roles.

Seeking to bring attention to the variety of science and technology (S&T) opportunities available, a pilot website, INSPIREST (careers.science.gov) has been created.

The website was developed through a collaboration of six Federal agencies—the Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Department of Labor (DOL), Department of State (DOS), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)—along with the Partnership for Public Service—and they would like your help in directing its mission to provide useful information to prospective employees at all stages of their careers.

Curious? And how!!

Learn about a variety of science and technology positions available within the Federal goverment. You won't be sorry.

INSPIREST was created in response to a perceived lack of general awareness and understanding of the opportunities in the Federal government for scientists and engineers, but this was not the only factor. Other challenges to nurturing a vital S&T workforce include: increased vacancies of key positions due to growing retirements within the “baby boomer” generation, and competition with the private sector for top talent.

The website’s creators also recognized that USAJOBS.gov—the primary avenue for applying to science and engineering positions for most Federal agencies—had a limited ability to communicate what jobs are available and what these jobs are really like.

I, for one, am grateful that a need was recognized to create a site like this. When I was going through my job search last year, government positions were definitely on my radar, and a few emerged from job search engine queries. I found that gathering information on and applying for these position were long, convoluted ordeals. INSPIREST seeks to demystify that process.

The INSPIREST website currently consists of three main sections. The Profiles section contains interviews with scientists, engineers, and technology specialists (actual people—including chemists and chemical engineers! Here, here and, yes, here) who currently have jobs “related to National priorities such as energy, discovery science, space exploration, national security, international diplomacy, and U.S. competitiveness in the 21st century,” according to the website.

The Resources section contains, not unexpectedly, resources. Okay, about what? Well, you can find information extolling the benefits of public service and the Federal employment experience. There is also key information and resources for finding Federal positions and applying for them.

There is also a section highlighting the six participating Federal agencies. Information is provided regarding the agencies’ respective missions, needs for a highly skilled S&T workforce, and direct links to current employment opportunities.

Uncle Sam can point you to a rewarding S&T career

...to fill out a quick survey...and learn about gov't science careers. That is all. Carry on.

I mentioned that the creators of INSPIRESTwould like your help. To guide the development of the website, they are requesting your feedback through the completion of a brief survey.

This beta site and the opportunity to provide feedback on this pilot will only be available through February 15, 2012. Links to the survey are liberally distributed through all sections of the INSPIREST site, or you can follow this link.

I have taken the survey – it is simple, straightforward and doesn’t take much time to complete. I would urge others to do the same, whether one is considering government S&T positions or not.

This is a chance to influence the creation of what could become a valuable resource for job-seekers. I commend the site’s creators for the transparency of this effort, and hope it continues as the site grows. So, remember, please try to complete the survey by February 15th!

Stay tuned to Just Another Electron Pusher as well over the next few days, as Christine has two upcoming posts, each about individuals with chemistry backgrounds, and who are now in science roles within the Federal government.

A chemist’s journey through academia, government, industry, and into medical writing

You may have been told at some point in your life that if you want to get a steady job in the future you should go into science, because that’s where the money is.

With this line of thinking, Kelly Keating, who was just as interested in creative writing as she was science and math, opted for the “sure thing” in college and chose to major in chemistry.

Kelly Keating, Ph.D., Editor and Medical Writer. Courtesy Photo.

After a B.S., Ph.D., and several jobs that took her through academia, government and industry, she is now an Editor and Medical Writer for the Pharmaceutical Research Institute (PRI), a non-profit organization within the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Albany, NY.

Go figure, huh?

While you couldn’t call Kelly’s path into medical writing “traditional”, I think all the twists and turns along the way make her story so interesting.

And it turns out that it wasn’t a waste to have taken the long windy road to where she has ended up, because along the way she was picking up all kinds of skills, the transferrable kind I wrote about in my last post.

Some people know what they want to do from the get-go and go after that. But most of us, I think, navigate and jump around from one thing to another until we figure out what we want. And that’s perfectly okay.

So, as I was saying, Kelly’s story just goes to show that there’s no one way to break into a non-traditional science career.

In a nutshell, here’s her career path leading up to medical writing:

  • B.S. in chemistry (U.W. Madison, 1983)
  • A few years of basic research
  • Ph.D. in chemistry (U.C. Davis, 1991)
  • Post-doc in NMR spectroscopy
  • One year at small biotech company
  • Visiting Scientist in an NMR group at a national lab
  • NMR spectroscopist and lab manager for a larger pharmaceutical company

Then, when she and her husband moved to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) for his job, she started a freelance medical writing business and taught part-time at a local college.

The toughest thing for Kelly initially was having no medical writing experience. It’s one of those Catch-22 things: you can’t get hired if you don’t have experience, but you can’t get experience if you never get a job!

By being willing to be flexible, Kelly got the experience she needed by doing some freelance grant and manuscript editing for the science departments at UIUC.

When her husband received a great job opportunity in Albany, NY, they moved. Shortly after, she landed her current medical writing job.

“And simply by luck the month we moved here the job I have now was advertised,” she said. “I had planned on freelancing until I found a fulltime job, but this opportunity was too good to pass up!”

At her current job, her daily tasks include: assisting graduate students with writing review articles and assisting the PRI staff researchers with their manuscript writing and editing.

Kelly said the best part of her job is “not being dependent on when an experiment finishes to determine when I leave for the day.”

Continue reading →

Profile: Congressional Legislative Assistant

Will O’Neal is, in no particular order, a PhD chemist, a former ACS Congressional fellow, and a Congressional Legislative Assistant for Representative Rush Holt.

Will O'Neal, courtesy photo.

“Basically,” O’Neal said, “I am a policy advisor for anything that relates to energy policy, science, research and development, nuclear security, and foreign affairs.”

As a Legislative Assistant O’Neal’s work is highly varied, but heavy on the research and writing, usually involving current events. And it’s mostly, as you might guess, advising.

“I keep the Congressman informed about policy developments or news that affects my legislative portfolio. I write talking points and background materials on upcoming bills and for legislative hearings or floor action in the House. I prepare the Congressman for public events and staff him at meetings. I develop policy proposals and draft legislation. I meet with interest groups and constituents,” O’Neal said.

And as you also might imagine, a lot of this work is short deadline and highly depends on the news of the day. So it’s a pretty far cry from doing research in a lab. But even so, that doctoral training comes in pretty handy.

“The skills you learn in science – how to think skeptically about the world, do research, and write – are universal,” O’Neal said. “I have to do really fast research on a daily basis, and I have to be able to pick out what is reliable information and what isn’t. Then I have to be able to summarize it quickly in a way that anyone can understand.”

O’Neal is happy with his chosen career, although working in Congress can be both rewarding and frustrating, he said.

“This job offered the chance to learn new things everyday on an array of different topics and to share that work in a way has a direct impact on our society,” O’Neal said. “But I think overall, the most important thing that is missing in my job is the time to really dig into a topic and gain some depth and expertise. I think if I had more opportunity to delve deeper into certain subjects I could be a better asset to my boss.”

O’Neal never was really interested in industry, and although he liked teaching, didn’t think he’d make a good academic. He learned of careers in public policy by seeing a poster in his grad school hallway advertising the AAAS Policy Fellowship program. While still in grad school, O’Neal got involved in the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy. After finishing his PhD, he taught for a year at the Center and managed the Policy Research Shop, “which is a great program that allows undergraduate students to do policy research projects for the New Hampshire and Vermont state legislatures,” he said.

After that, O’Neal was awarded the ACS Congressional fellowship, which is part of the AAAS program. He was placed with Rep. Holt, and hired on after his fellowship was up. He’s worked there a total of two and a half years.

Capitol Hill, photo by flickr user VinothChandar.

For scientists interested in going into policy, O’Neal highly suggests getting some kind of experience in politics before moving forward.

“You will be disappointed if you come to the Hill expecting that scientific arguments win the day,” he said. “Politics is about weighing competing interests, and there may be very legitimate reasons for doing the exact opposite of what ‘science tells you to do.’ It’s very important to understand and respect that part of the job.”

He recommends the AAAS program as a way to figure out if policy is what you want to do, but suggests getting some experience even before you do that.

“Go volunteer on a political campaign or at your representative’s local office,” he said. “You might be surprised at what you see and you’ll be doing a good thing.”

Like most other jobs right now, O’Neal said that employment on Capitol Hill is hard to get.

“It’s tough to find a job on the Hill, but Members and committees are always looking for talented professionals with special expertise. The real difficulty for scientists is that offices like to hire people that have Hill experience. Many staffers get experience by starting off as interns and working their way up.”

This sounds kind of painful for someone who just slogged through 5 years of a PhD, which is why O’Neal recommends the AAAS program. But I’ve heard from a few people that’s getting extraordinarily competitive as well. Remember that program isn’t just for recent grads–anyone with a PhD can apply, which means the applicant pool is potentially huge. The deadline for next year has already passed (December 5), but I found a huge list of policy fellowships at Sheril Kirshenbaum’s blog at Discover. She started it last year, but it looks like she’s been updating as she finds new ones. I haven’t clicked through to find out if they’re all still active, so caveat emptor.

There’s a lot of information about science policy out on the interwebs, but I recommend starting at Science Career Magazine. Good luck!

UPDATE (1/6/11): Leigh passed on a lovely note from Alison Gershen from the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships staff. They also have an extensive list of resources on their site for those interested in policy work. — Rachel

Science Policy and Communication

The post du jour is by Paul Vallett, a grad student in physical chemistry  at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He’s got a shiny new blog called electron cafe where he discusses his research, energy, and science policy (I highly recommend the Explosion Fridays). So true to his usual topics, he wrote a bit for us about science policy. Share and enjoy.

A scientist turned science policy dude that you may have heard of: DOE Secretary Steven Chu. He's flanked in this picture by Congresswoman Anna Eshoo and former California State Controller Steve Westly. Image by flickr user jurveston.

When was the last time you attended a talk outside of your specific area of research? I study physical chemistry and recently went to a talk by Dr Paul Nurse, a 2001 Nobel Laureate in Physiology/Medicine. I don’t have a strong background in biochemistry, but background in biochemistry, but how often do you get the chance to hear a Nobel Laureate speak? I went with my whole lab group and found a packed auditorium. After the talk our lab heartily agreed that Dr.Nurse was an excellent speaker but that we all had no idea what he was really talking about. This is not meant to be a slight on Dr. Nurse, because I am sure that if he attended one of our physical chemistry seminars he would have a similar experience. Scientists and researchers typically can easily communicate within their own research community but those outside the community cannot penetrate the barrier of scientific terms, jargon, and basic knowledge of the field needed to achieve full understanding of the work.

If this is a problem for scientists who are from somewhat similar scientific disciplines, imagine the difficulty that someone without a scientific background will have when attempting to understand the importance of research results. This is a problem that plagues decision makers that require the findings of scientific research to create sound policy but do not have the time to sift through reams of published papers in an attempt to understand the results. This is where scientists who are able to have a deep understanding of research and can still communicate effectively with a broad audience are extremely valuable. Entering the field of science and technology policy is an option for those who wish to leave the laboratory behind but have a desire to use their technical background in a manner that has direct impact on policy decisions made.

Here are a few opportunities in policy that you can explore while enrolled in graduate school and after graduation.

Go into science policy and you too can meet interesting people in government. Jinormous belt buckles are optional.

Certificate Programs

Graduate certificates are earned alongside your normal degree, similar to a minor on an undergraduate degree and are meant to supplement your program’s coursework. Many graduate institutions now offer graduate certificates in the area of science and technology policy. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has a fairly complete listing of institutions offering such programs here. These are a great way to gain policy skills and backgrounds while demonstrating to potential employers that you have an interest in the world outside of your individual research area.


AAAS offers the prestigious Science and Technology Fellowship program. This year-long fellowship is open to all social and physical sciences, but requires you to have obtained a terminal degree in your field of study before applying. The fellows are placed in a number of different administrative offices, covering defense, energy, agriculture, and health services.

The National Academies offer the Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Graduate Fellowship Program. They look for graduate students in a broad range of fields and fellows work with a mentor within the Academies on various policy projects. It is only a 12 week program, making it ideal for current graduate students.

Hi, this is Leigh again: I found one more–the ACS Public Policy fellowship. You have to be done with your degree and an ACS member to apply. Applications are due December 31, so get on it!

Thanks to Paul for a great post. I’m going to be profiling someone who received the ACS fellowship in the next couple of weeks, keep your eyes peeled for that.

Working for The Man


It sounds a little scary, doesn’t it? After all, THE GOVERNMENT is who tells you what to do and takes your money once a year. But they do good stuff too, like that whole, you know, constitution and bill of rights thing. Plus they employ a whole lot of chemists.

Some of the government's money could be yours! Image by flickr user Alex E. Proimos.

Surprised? I kind of was. I was tooling around on USAJOBS.gov the other day, and just did a quick search for ‘chemist.’ And great googly moogly! There were A TON.

And I just want to clarify that these aren’t jobs in government labs like PNNL or Brookhaven–that’s something totally different. This is a job list for government agencies, and these were just some of the ones I saw:

The Army
The Navy
The Air Force
(sadly did not see any for the Marines)
Agricultural Research Service
Homeland Security

Most of these jobs listed are research jobs, so if you want to avoid industry or academia but want to stay in the lab, this may be the course for you.

Image 1942, Library of Congress.

I should also add that many government jobs require that you be a US citizen (not necessarily born here, but naturalized). And pass a background check. And….anything else? Since I’ve never held a government job, I asked my friend John Spencer who’s a project manager for Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center in southern Indiana, part of the Department of Defense. Hi, John!

John says hi.

He also said that his application was a little different than most, since he started out as a contractor for Crane. But yes, expect a background check. A lengthy one. His was about a 30-page document that asked for information including every place he’s lived for the past seven years, all his employers in that time, all the schools he attended in that time, any foreign travel and foreign contacts, his family relationships and their nationalities, et cetera, et cetera. What you’ll get asked also depends on the level of security of the job you’re applying for. I’m assuming that the check for the FBI might be a titch different than the one for the USDA, but we know what happens when we assume…

John likes working for the government. Like any other job, it’s got its perks and disadvantages. File under perks: the pay is good (generally somewhere between academia and industry pay), and the people tend to be intelligent. Plus if you like variety, it’s easy to move around, John said. He’s had three different jobs in the three years he’s worked at Crane. Job security is another benefit of government work. Once you get hired, it’s a bit hard to get fired. “Sort of like tenure in academia,” John said. But it does also have its downside. “The job security tends to make people a bit lazier,” he said. You can get fired of course, if you’re doing something unsafe or illegal. But just not working that hard? That would probably get you shunted to another department. (Yay, government?)

I have you now. Image by flickr user Laura Padgett.

So it’s definitely something to think about, especially since more typical industrial or academic sectors are not so happy right now. I know, tell you something you don’t know. But actual numbers saying things are bad are useful. This week’s C&EN cover story is about the decline of jobs in industry, while The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story Tuesday about how tenure in academic jobs is going bye-bye.

So, yeah. Hello, Uncle Sam?


ETA: As a reader commented below, apparently the Air Force and Navy are not actively hiring at this time (7/16/10), they’re just accepting resumes. But I guess this brings up the need to point something out.

The goal of this blog is to inform people who are searching for alternative careers in chemistry as to what other options are out there. It doesn’t mean you will find employment in one of these options, although I hope you do if that’s what you want. Although I do try to indicate the availability of these jobs, I leave the actual jobseeking to you. Also please note that details posted today may not be applicable a month, six months, or several years down the road.

I am also not responsible if someone pursues a career they learn about here, gets a job and a) doesn’t like it, b) hates their boss, c) doesn’t get paid as much as they want to, d) trips and fall on the sidewalk one day on their way to work, breaks their wrist and has to go through expensive physical therapy and even with that, their tennis game is never the same again, or e) pretty much every scenario possible.