Meet the New STPF Director (and STPF Alumna) Jennifer Pearl

Enjoying her AAAS home, Jennifer Pearl is the new STPF Director. | Kat Song/AAAS

In challenging times for science and public policy, the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships (STPF) is particularly pleased to welcome a new director who finds opportunities, inspires and mobilizes teams, and gets things done. 

STPF Director Jennifer Pearl, 2002-03 Executive Branch Fellow, brings an inquisitive and data-driven mentality to the position, bolstered by 12 years of experience at the National Science Foundation, training as a mathematician and her upbringing in a family of public school educators. She took the STPF helm on June 12 and outlined some of her priorities in a recent article, AAAS’ New S&T Policy Fellowships Program Head Comes Full Circle

Pearl pursued a Ph.D. with the intention of becoming a math professor. But early in her career, she realized that the problems she was working on were very theoretical and difficult to explain to someone without specialized knowledge. She started casting about for an opportunity to work on broader problems in a more interactive environment. At a New Jersey diner back home for Thanksgiving, she brought up the fellowship with her friends from high school. Their unanimous and enthusiastic encouragement tipped the scales. 

“One of the reasons I am most excited about this position is the importance of science-based policy to the progress of our nation. Data needs to form the backbone of arguments to promote sound policies affecting areas from agriculture to vaccines. STPF fellows, with their deep scientific training, understanding of the policymaking arena, far-reaching networks and honed communication skills, are poised to lead us forward and play critical roles in years to come.”

Jennifer Pearl

One of her fondest fellowship memories is from the application process. While she felt as though she “wasn’t very familiar with much of science policy,” her application included a policy brief on the Bayh-Dole Act since she had some experience in tech transfer issues. 

“I sat around a big table at AAAS with all of these people who had jobs I’d never heard of before, and thought ‘I didn’t know these positions existed.’ I remember thinking that even if I don’t get the fellowship, the application process was all worth it. The interview itself was a big learning experience.”

A lasting fellowship lesson came early on in her assignment. “I was in a meeting where I was the youngest person in the room, the newest addition to our group and one of only a few women. My mentor asked, ‘Jennifer, if you could handle this any way you wanted and you had no constraints, what would you do?’ I thought, ‘No one ever asked me a question like that.’ I had always heard people say things like, ‘We don’t have any time, or money or space – what’s the path of least resistance?’” Since then, she has strived to retain that mindset and use it in strategy discussions that she leads. 

Jennifer Pearl on a recent trip to Costa Rica.

As a program director at NSF, people from the community would come to her seeking funding for very specific items. She would back them up and ask, “Tell me what you really want to do, and I’ll see if we can fit it into our framework.” 

Now during her first month at STPF, her priority is to “figure out what my priorities will be for the first year. I need to learn about everything that’s going on.” Pearl says she is particularly excited about the opportunity to provide strategic direction to the program and mentor staff.

One area she is keen to explore is in what she calls the “matchmaking” role of STPF. Much of the value of the program lies in its unique position and ability to meet the needs of both the government and its own needs for scientists and engineers, and those of fellows with respect to career development. “What are fellows looking for in terms of their fellowship placement and future careers? What does government need that it’s not already getting? What niche can we fill?”

Pearl is also doing a lot of studying and strategic planning with respect to STPF staff and alumni fellows. “We need to understand the interests and needs of alumni fellows and how they relate to AAAS, its mission and its many activities.” 

“It’s never an easy search for someone with the right background and vision for a program like the S&T Policy Fellowships. We're extremely glad to have Dr. Pearl take leadership.”

Charles E. Dunlap, Ph.D. Interim Chief Program Director, Center of Science, Policy and Society Programs (CSPSP) and Program Director, Research Competitiveness Programs, CSPSP

She is appreciative of the support she has received from staff during her onboarding. “I would like to commend the STPF team for doing such a great job running an excellent and successful placement process, managing through a leadership transition period, and planning for the upcoming 45th anniversary of the program!”

Finally with respect to life outside of the fellowships, Pearl enjoys an active family life along with her husband, two children and dog -- all the while trying to avoid having too many commitments on the calendar. She loves the theatre and has ambitions of one day improving her French conversational skills.