Dr. Janet Chen is currently a Foreign Affairs Officer at the U.S. Department of State in the Office for Multilateral Nuclear and Security Affairs in the Bureau for International Security and Nonproliferation. In this role, she coordinates U.S. support for work that uses nuclear technologies to address global health and sustainability issues and to advance foreign policy objectives. This includes developing private-public partnerships with the Department of State and International Atomic Energy Agency to achieve these goals. She serves as a 2019-2020 AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow and holds a PhD in Ecology from the University of Wyoming, an MS in Botany from Washington State University, and a BS in Biology from the University of Arizona.
We asked Dr. Chen a number of questions about her connections to AAAS as a member, S&T Policy Fellow, and donor, and about her career advice for others.
How did you first learn about AAAS and the work we do?
I first learned about AAAS when I was searching for post-doctorate opportunities after graduate school. I became an S&T Policy Fellow candidate and AAAS member in 2018. During my placement and orientation, I learned how essential the AAAS community is to bringing experts in science to the U.S. government. And I learned through networking events, seminars, and the web about the role that AAAS plays in maintaining scientific integrity. That's when I decided to become a donor.
What made you apply to be an S&T Policy Fellow?
The program seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn what working in government is like. I realized during my PhD that I didn't want to stay in academia and that I might be able to play a role building a sustainable relationship with our environment through policy. The fellowship offered an ideal way to see how science plays a role in developing policy, and how policy and government support science.
I wasn’t selected for the fellowship the first time I applied and, in retrospect, I'm glad. I wasn't ready and the work experiences I had in the interim allowed me to bring the most to the fellowship now. This includes incredible research positions abroad as well as my recent work at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). While I was at IAEA, I watched a former lab-mate of mine become an S&T Policy Fellow and admired all the amazing experiences she had. That's when I decided to apply for the program again - and I got it!
What impact has the fellowship had on your career?
The connections you make through AAAS open up unexpected and amazing career opportunities. I never would have thought that my background as an ecologist would make me well suited for a position in the Department of State’s Office for Multilateral Nuclear and Security Affairs in the Bureau for International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN/MNSA), but, thanks to serendipity, here I am! At a networking lunch, which happened near the end of the week that I was interviewing for placement as a S&T Policy Fellow, someone suggested that I consider placement at the Department of State in ISN. It wasn't even on my radar before then. Because there was only one day left for interviews, I quickly shot out a couple emails to ISN and, within a couple hours, I received a response from ISN/MNSA asking me to come in the following morning for an interview. I found out during my interview that this office had funded my position at the IAEA and one of their Foreign Affairs Officers (FAO) had met me during his visit to the IAEA. He was impressed with my ability to communicate science and recommended me for the position. During the interview, the Deputy Director said that an ecologist wasn't on their radar of ideal candidates either, but because of my experience at the IAEA working on peaceful uses of nuclear technologies (specifically, using stable isotopes to evaluate the sustainability of agricultural practices used in Member States), they thought I would be a great fit. I couldn't believe the timing... The day of my interview was the FAO's last day of work before retirement too! Talk about serendipity.
My fellowship at ISN/MNSA has exceeded all my expectations. I have learned so much about how science plays a role in diplomacy and policy and I've been given numerous opportunities to support meaningful research at the IAEA and through bilateral and multilateral cooperation.
Tell us about the work you’re doing in your fellowship.
As a FAO in ISN/MNSA, I mainly focus on coordinating U.S. support for work that delivers the benefits of peaceful uses of nuclear technology to countries in need - one of the core components of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. This includes work done by the IAEA as well as work done through bilateral and multilateral cooperation.
Most people only associate the IAEA with work in nuclear safeguards, security and safety, but part of my portfolio is increasing awareness of their work in food and agriculture, environment, industry, human health and nuclear energy. Particularly, I am trying to spread the word that the IAEA needs experts from the U.S. in these areas. They, along with my office, are also seeking to develop public-private partnerships with groups in industry, academia, and other organizations that want to use nuclear technologies to benefit people in countries in need.
I love the diverse array of topics that I touch upon every day in my work. For example, I might start my day coordinating multilateral support for cancer control, learn about research conducted by universities to monitor water resources with isotopes the next hour, clear funding for efforts to reduce mosquito populations that transmit disease by introducing males that have been sterilized by radiation later in the day, and then conclude by helping a delegation plan for a trip to develop a country’s strategy to receive nuclear power.
What has inspired or motivated you to get to this point in your career?
I've known I wanted to be a scientist since I was young. However, a big part of who I've become as a scientist is because of chance encounters that have presented me with opportunities throughout the years. For example, during my Master’s work, a visiting professor invited me to do a PhD with him once I was done with my thesis. I dismissed it, but a friend of mine pushed me to reconsider - and I'm so thankful that he did. My PhD advisor was a fantastic mentor and taught me a lot about integrity and commitment to one’s goals. Another example is when I met with a visitor from the IAEA that was touring my laboratory during my PhD. He told me to consider joining the Agency once I was done with my degree and mentioned that they needed experts like me. I never would have considered a job at the IAEA before then and it became a career goal of mine.
What advice would you give to others who want to contribute to science in various ways, like you are?
One key piece of advice I'd share is that it pays to surround yourself with good people that will help you grow. I'm fortunate to have had mentors who have helped build my moral compass and taught me the value of scientific integrity, collaboration, and the importance of communicating science well. Stay open to opportunities because you never know which ones will really help build up your career.
How do you hope to see AAAS—and your involvement with AAAS—progress in the future?
I'm excited by AAAS CEO Sudip Parikh's vision to continue to build AAAS as a community of scientists that represent and advance science. AAAS has already had such a meaningful impact on my life, and I look forward to seeing how our community continues to have a positive impact in areas including media, industry, government and more.
Through AAAS, I hope to meet other individuals and groups who are interested in public-private partnerships to bring further benefits of peaceful uses of nuclear technologies, such as radiopharmaceuticals or monitoring natural resources with isotopes, to countries in need.
*All views expressed in this interview are those of Janet Chen and do not represent those of the U.S. government.*