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A Career Changer: Engineers Thrive in Science Policy

Scientists and engineers often use their AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships to expand their expertise and make a pivot in their career path. Two STPF fellows found that in addition to those benefits, they grew to appreciate federal agencies’ capacity to create change.

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Mario Urdaneta | Daniel Nathan

After earning a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of Maryland in 2007, Mario Urdaneta contributed to developing microtechnologies, including “lab on a chip” devices and microfluidics technology for making biologically-integrated chips. He worked for several technology start-ups, including one that was inventing medical devices. The work was “a lot of fun,” Urdaneta said. “If they make it to the marketplace, they can change the world. But, the likelihood it will happen is pretty small.”

Urdaneta wanted a career with broad impact. He found the opportunity he was looking for in the policy fellowships program and eventually became a 2015-17 Executive Branch Fellow at the Department of Energy in its Advanced Manufacturing Office. There, he supported programs to develop large-scale 3-D printing technologies and wide-band gap semiconductor materials, which can be used to transfer electricity more efficiently.

“In the start-up world, it is far from certain that you will have an actual impact. If you work for the federal government, you are not likely to change the world, but you almost certainly will have some impact,” Urdaneta said. The difference in the pace of change between a start-up and the government did take some getting used to, however. “It took me some time to appreciate that to have an impact [on policy], it takes a longer, sustained effort. That was one of the lessons I was learning: to be patient,” Urdaneta said.

After his fellowship, Urdaneta also found it helpful to take a long view in appreciating how it benefited his career, he said. “The AAAS policy fellowship has increased the likelihood that I will have a long-term positive impact on topics that are important to me,” such as improving energy use, increasing the manufacturing competitiveness of the U.S., and increasing the sustainable production of products.

He now works as a technology and policy specialist at a manufacturing policy think tank called MForesight, where he is studying the competitiveness of the U.S. manufacturing sector and bringing together the manufacturing community to inform the federal government on what it needs and to help define policies. “This is something the federal government needs help with in order to see the big picture,” Urdaneta said.

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Stephanie Bogle

2012-14 Executive Branch Fellow Stephanie Bogle, a materials engineer, also used her fellowship – her at the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID – to change course in her career. While her Ph.D. and post-doctoral work focused on nanostructural order in amorphous materials and metals, her undergraduate work had included some science policy, a field she was interested in exploring again. Bogle had also gained some experience in international development while volunteering with Engineers without Borders in college. She contributed to building a biofuel generator in India and a water filtration project in Guatemala.

Bogle was selected to work in the Office of Global Climate Change at USAID which was helping countries increase their capacities for low-emissions development by supporting the development of clean energy and sustainable landscape policies. She helped develop metrics used to see if countries were making progress and achieving their goals.

“I wasn’t sure at the time that I did the fellowship that science policy was something I would want to keep doing, but I wanted to explore it,” Bogle said. During her two years, she said she did see improvement in a variety of countries in adopting these strategies. But, like Urdaneta, she found it helps to keep the work in perspective. “These things take a lot of time,” Bogle said.

Post-fellowship, Bogle has remained in policy. After consulting for a few years with other companies for USAID, she moved to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Change Division, where she reviews greenhouse gas data reported by U.S. facilities to verify that their accounting is accurate.

“It would have been a lot more difficult to get that experience without the fellowship,” Bogle said. “For me, it was a great way to combine all of my interests: my science background and my interest in policy and development.”

Author

Kathleen O'Neil