Since 2021, the U.S Department of the Treasury has joined a host of other federal agencies in welcoming fellows from the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships (STPF) program over the last 50 years.
Inaugural Treasury fellows Amritava Das (now an alum) and Allen “AJ” Stewart have served in the Office of Investment Security where fellows apply their expertise in mathematics and engineering to questions of national security.
According to Deputy Director Joseph Pauloski, the Office of Investment Security fulfills the Department of the Treasury's responsibilities as chair of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). CFIUS is an interagency committee authorized to review certain transactions involving foreign investment in the United States and to, when necessary, address national security risks.
CFIUS is overseen by the Treasury Secretary, a position now held by Janet Yellen, with members from agencies including the State, Justice, Energy, and Commerce departments. The office has been highlighted in recent news stories concerning regulations for the social media app Tik Tok, as well as the Chinese technology company Huawei.
“STPF fellows enrich the inherent cross-disciplinary nature of the CFIUS mission with their thoughtful perspectives and rigorous analysis,” Pauloski said. “They offer our office significant contributions through their technology and sector expertise and ability to translate technical information to inform policy decisions.”
Amritava Das (2021-22 Executive Branch Fellow) was the first fellow at Treasury. He now works as a senior consultant for 11th Hour Service, a contractor with the Department of Defense, where he utilizes the knowledge gained during his fellowship experience.
“I was brought in because a lot of the technologies that the Department of Defense might be interested in are being developed within the United States and are being developed by companies that may end up being subject to foreign acquisitions,” Das said. “They wanted somebody who had a certain degree of strategic experience, plus a certain degree of technical knowledge, to act as an advisor for the office.”
Das came to STPF with a Ph.D. in chemical and biological engineering from the University of Wisconsin. He says that he was drawn to biomedical engineering because of the focus on innovation and was interested in researching ways to improve gene therapy. Along with this came an interest in bioethics to better understand how doctors make decisions in clinical trials and the ways that this impacts particular patients. After a postdoctoral position, he realized he felt like he was “in the bleachers, instead of on the field,” and looked to the STPF program to gain an inside look at the workings of the federal government and the regulations that govern decisions.
At CFIUS, he worked as a case officer who could provide expertise on transactions concerning chemical engineering, biotechnology, and biomedicine, applying his scientific background to guide internal experts. Although there are “already quite a few protections within existing law to prevent the national security of the United States from being jeopardized through foreign involvement, the CFIUS acts as the authority of last resort to protect the country from any vulnerabilities arising from foreign investment,” he said.
He emphasized that the CFIUS “is truly one of the most fantastic workplaces I will ever be in.” The STPF fellowship gave him the opportunity to change the direction of his career, he said, because it unlocked an entire realm of jobs that allows fellows to branch out in their career path.
While some fellowship experiences lend themselves well to extroversion, such as for legislative branch fellows, working at Treasury offered an experience that allows more introverted people to use their expertise for influencing policy. “I really enjoyed being the first fellow at the Treasury,” he says. “It was a fantastic experience, and I hope more fellows take advantage of the opportunity.”
AJ Stewart has seemingly heeded this advice, as the Treasury Department’s current fellow working in the same office. Last year, Stewart completed his first fellowship year as the American Mathematical Society’s Congressional Science & Engineering Fellow in Senator Raphael Warnock’s office in economic policy. As his introduction to policy work, he says that he quickly found that math and science have a vital role in government. “There are a lot of problems that the government is focused on that need a creative problem-solver to formulate solutions,” he said.
The two fellowship placements have been unique experiences, he commented, with his current role at the Treasury Department focused on reviewing foreign transactions to assess their national security risk. In the Senate, he worked on a broad portfolio of tasks, including taxes, housing, finance, and even supporting constituents. “It was very fast-paced, and things could change very quickly. I really appreciated my time working on Capitol Hill, but I wanted to learn more about the executive branch, so the STPF executive branch fellowship was a perfect opportunity.”
Stewart has a Ph.D. in algebraic geometry from the University of Oregon and says that with an environmental engineer for a father, “there was always a lot of focus on science in my house.” He spent his childhood in Florida playing outside, catching snakes and frogs, and considered acting as a career as a high school student. After some time at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, he took community college classes that first spurred his interest in math. “I had always thought of math as being focused on calculations,” he says, “but it was that class that helped me realize the creativity and critical thinking that is so integral to mathematics.” He completed his undergraduate degree in math at Humboldt State University (now Cal Poly Humboldt).
He followed his love for math to graduate school, choosing algebraic geometry “because it lies at the intersection of a lot of different fields,” he says. “Being able to use geometry to study data is really exciting to me.” Following his Ph.D., he taught at Seattle University, turning his focus to data, statistics, and economics to help his students understand the role finances and data play in the world. “I spent a lot of my time outside the classroom reading books on financial systems or learning different programming languages in order to better inform my students,” he said. He also volunteered with the nonprofit Kilowatts for Humanity, leading solar-powered kiosk installations in Zambia. These experiences spurred him to consider a career outside of academia, hoping to find a way that math and science could be used as a catalyst for positive change in the world.
At the Treasury Department, he says that his mathematical skills have been put to good use. “A lot of financial transactions involve investments in emerging technologies and having a background in data, algorithms, and computation has been beneficial.” As for the year ahead, he says that he is most excited about working with the member agencies of CFIUS. “It is really exciting to learn about all of the different technologies that are being developed right now in the United States.”
Stewart also leads the Data Users Affinity Group for fellows which is devoted to exploring how data is used in government. “Data analytics and computing is becoming a more vital skill within every office of government,” he said. “It is really nice to have a group of fellows that are there to support each other as questions or difficulties arise.”
Like Das, Stewart said that the fellowship program has succeeded in broadening his perspective on career opportunities. “Sometimes mathematicians and scientists think that in order to be fulfilled, they have to do research. I know I used to think that way. But I think everyone should know that there is really exciting and important mathematical work being done in government. These are some of the world’s biggest problems and having more scientists actively working on them would be a good thing.”
[*Fellows’ statements are their own and do not represent the views of the Treasury Department or any other part of the US Government.]