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From Lasers in the Lab to IEDs on the Battlefield

Fellowship Focus - January 2010

Christophe L. McCray
PhD, Laser Physics, Hampton University
2005-07 AAAS Fellow at the Department of Defense in the Office of Naval Research, Expeditionary Warfare Operations Technology Division

My career path has been anything but clear or straight, and I doubt my final destination will reflect what I, my parents, or lifelong friends had originally envisioned. This is not to say it has been disappointing. Quite the opposite; my experiences with the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship opened my eyes to a myriad of opportunities and discoveries I may not have uncovered had I taken a more traditional route.

I am trained as a physicist and my focus for ten years was in the area of laser science. Physics is a field I deeply love, and it has occupied more than a decade of my life. It is a challenging vocation that has taught me how to think in a critical systematic method, not just in understanding the laws of nature, but in developing a methodology for addressing unique and diverse problems. Therefore, when I decided to leave laser physics and pursue another career path, I knew the skills I had developed from my physics background would support me.

My search for a new career led me to the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, a program known for linking science and engineering professionals to policymakers. AAAS provided me with an avenue to apply skill sets, developed through the rigor of physics, to the world of policy. Through the AAAS Fellowship, I was granted the opportunity to work at the Office of Naval Research (ONR), where I developed a nanotechnology research program and was a key contributor in developing ONR’s Science and Technology strategic plan (2007).

There were numerous highlights during my fellowship, but three always come to mind:1) participating in a briefing to the Naval Research Science Board;2) organizing and running a conference on nanotechnology, and; 3) a weeklong adventure on the USS Saipan (LHA-2), a Tarawa-class amphibious assault ship. All of these experiences not only challenged and stretched me beyond my usual comfort zones, but also opened up new career possibilities.

Following my fellowship at ONR, I accepted a position as a research staff member at the Institute of Defense Analysis (IDA), a federally funded research and development center. At IDA, I worked on a wide array of topics ranging from nuclear to economic policy. I also had the opportunity to work in Baghdad, Iraq, operating and developing models that examined types of attacks. These models and investigations provided the military better situational awareness of the constantly changing dynamics in Iraq. A regular week consisted of seven, 14-hour days of meetings and investigations into strategic and tactical operations. The days were intense; therefore, maintaining a personal routine to decompress from the constant demands was very important.

Presently I am the lead analyst at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, leading an effort in Irregular Warfare (IW). This endeavor is intended to provide support to soldiers and civilians currently in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will facilitate planning for future IW conflicts.

I would never have had these unique experiences if I had not taken a risk and reached beyond laser physics. The AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship enabled this new direction in my life. I will always be grateful for the opportunities it has afforded me, as well as the friendships I was fortunate to make.

December 2009: Christophe McCray, PhD, is an Analyst in the Irregular Warfare Program, Office of the Secretary of Defense, U.S. Department of Defense in Washington, D.C.

Disclaimer: The perspectives and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, the U.S. Government, or the U.S. Department of Defense.

To return to the January 2010 edition of the Fellowship Focus, click here.