Mid-career Policy Fellows Jumpstart Careers in Industry

After 12 years of commercializing a technology she developed during her Ph.D. research in electrical and computer engineering, Kavita Ravi, 2011-13 Executive Branch Fellow at the Department of Energy, was ready for a change. “I had always been interested in clean energy, so I thought ‘Why not make a big change?’” Ravi said. The policy fellowship “was a nice way to transition into the clean energy space, which is dictated a lot by policy and regulation.”

While many policy fellows join the program soon after completing their graduate degrees, a number of mid-career professionals become fellows to gain policy experience and explore a new field. 

As a fellow, Ravi managed a competition to stimulate the development of energy efficient appliances without sacrificing performance. She also collaborated with the Department of State on a program that offered mini-grants to encourage mini-grid projects that would deliver electricity to un-served and under-served people in India while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

Ravi said the fellowship taught her what technologies need to do to be successful in getting funding and into the marketplace. She is now the director of emerging markets at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, a quasi-state agency that helps businesses, nonprofits and universities develop clean energy technologies. 

Ivor Knight, 1988-89 Executive Branch Fellow at the Agency for International Development, also came to STPF with years of experience. He had been a professor of molecular biology and microbiology at James Madison University for 10 years. But unlike Ravi, he didn’t enter looking for a career change. He applied at the encouragement of his mentor, he said, and hoped it would expand his abilities and teach him about how policymakers worked. 

During his time as a fellow, the U.S. was getting lots of produce from Central America, and some of it was contaminated with pathogens that cause diarrheal disease, he said. Knight and his colleagues developed a program to work with industry in those countries to build infrastructure and ensure produce would be safely grown and transported. The program was successful, and was later expanded to Africa, which supplies produce to Europe. Through extensive travel, he learned to work with different cultures, he said. 

Not long after returning from his fellowship, however, his mentor asked if he would like to move to Canon, which was launching a start-up to apply its technologies to biomedical applications. He tried it out, and made the “tough decision to give up tenure.” Thirteen years later, he is now senior vice president and chief technical officer at Canon Life Sciences and a newly formed marketing company, Canon Biomedical. The companies recently released rapid human genetic analysis kits, and are developing additional products. Canon is based in Japan, where the culture is more risk-adverse than in the U.S., and uses consensus to make decisions, so Knight said he makes good use of the diplomacy skills he developed as a fellow. “You have to listen, and learn how to adapt and relate internationally to be able to work across cultures,” he said. 

For Terry Ryan Kane, 2010-11 Legislative Branch Fellow sponsored by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the switch to becoming a fellow also set in motion big changes. After 23 years of providing veterinary care to cats, she decided the time was right to apply for a policy fellowship. “I was always involved in politics locally,” and she was interested in learning about how policy was made on the federal level, she said. She sold her practice and moved to Washington D.C. to become the first AVMA-sponsored fellow in Senator Kirstin Gillibrand’s office. 

Kane’s posting gave her the opportunity to work on the Farm Bill as well as emerging diseases and food safety. “I learned pretty quickly that the senators and congress people have volumes to read, so it’s up to the staffers to condense it down to the most salient points,” she said. “That’s been really helpful.” Working on food-related bills also inspired her to start a new veterinary practice for bees, since pollinators are so important, she said. As part of her practice, Kane educates beekeepers about new antibiotic use regulations that are intended to reduce antibiotic resistance.

At any career stage, being an STPF fellow opens doors and generates new contacts and ideas that can have exciting consequences.