Mathematicians are at work in the federal government; you too?

Are you wondering what you might do after you receive your PhD or finish a post-doctoral appointment? Are you post-tenure and thinking that you might want to explore science policy work? There are opportunities for mathematicians to come give federal policy work a try. If you are (in any way) suspicious, read on – you will learn about a handful of mathematicians and their current experiences learning about and helping shape federal policies that affect our work lives. The work is fascinating, and we need you!

Last September 26, 2016-17 AMS Congressional Fellow Catherine Paolucci wrote a great guest post (in this blog) about her year in Washington, working in the U.S. Senate (she also wrote about this in the February 2018 Notices). The Congressional fellowship runs September of a given year through August of the next year.

The AMS-sponsored fellow is just one of about 300 PhD scientists serving in the federal government each year, as part of the large Science & Technology Policy Fellowship program run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Our under-representation should change!

WANT TO JOIN THE 2019-20 FELLOWS CLASS?
APPLICATIONS ARE ACCEPTED BY THE AAAS MAY-OCTOBER 2018
THE AMS WILL ACCEPT APPLICATIONS RECEIVED BY FEBRUARY 15, 2019

The first class of AAAS fellows was in 1973 and consisted of seven scientists hosted by the American Physical Society, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineering. Today, the AAAS partners with several dozen professional associations – including the AMS – and places nearly 300 fellows each year in all branches of the federal government. Each year, roughly 30-35 fellows are sponsored by one of the AMS’s sister associations to work in Congress, one fellow can be placed in the Judicial Branch, and the remaining 250 or so work in the Executive Branch. Hosting offices covet their fellows. Executive Branch fellows work in many, many agencies and not just ones mathematicians might think of like the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense.

Over the past several years, only one or two mathematicians work (per year) as Executive Branch fellows. This should change! It is a great experience, and the AAAS would love more applications from mathematical scientists. The great news is that the current fellows class (2017-18) includes (at least) triple the usual number of mathematicians. The rest of this post will tell you a bit about them, and – I hope – will encourage you to apply for this fellowship. It is common advice – here on the ground – to encourage scientists to apply simultaneously to the AMS and to the AAAS.

I asked the current math fellows to answer a few questions. Their answers should give you the (correct) understanding that the fellowship can be successful at any stage of your career, and allow you a glimpse of their own reflections on how the experience is transforming their careers. You will see that their research areas vary quite a bit and may seem unrelated to the work they are doing (that is typical, btw).

Meet Tyler, Margaret, Kyle, Jessica, and Chris (reverse alphabetical order)

Your name?
Tyler Kloefkorn


Your placement?
National Science Foundation
Directorate of Computer & Information Science & Engineering
Division of Information and Intelligent Systems

Your PhD area?
Non-commutative algebra and combinatorial topology. Currently, I do work in homological algebra and finite element exterior calculus.

Where were you before this?
From August 2014 to July 2017, I was a teaching postdoctoral fellow at the University of Arizona, Department of Mathematics. I received my PhD from the University of Oregon in 2014 and was advised by Professor Brad Shelton.

How is this experience re-shaping your ideas about your own future?
This experience has certainly re-shaped how I value mathematics and mathematical thinking. Trained as an algebraist and coming out of graduate school, I was not aware of how mathematics fits into the greater science community. While I continue to think about projects in abstract algebra, I now look for ways to apply my analytical skills to a variety of research and real-world problems. I am able to incorporate mathematics into science and science policy. In particular, I routinely use linear algebra and statistics to better understand problems or articulate solutions. 

I would like to return to academia after completing my fellowship. Accordingly, this experience will re-shape how I approach my research, teaching, and mentoring. As a professor, I will look to incorporate this new perspective of science and science policy into my daily activities. For example, now with a greater awareness of careers and education opportunities in science, I know that I can be a better mentor/adviser for my students.

Why do you think this is a good or worthwhile experience for other PhD mathematicians?
I’m still a little new to this experience, but thus far I think there are several valuable features of the AAAS STP Fellowship at the NSF.

First, a Fellow at the NSF can learn first-hand how the NSF promotes and supports basic research in science. For example, I have been fortunate to learn about the BIGDATA Program with Program Directors Sylvia Spengler and Chaitanya Baru. I have contributed to solicitations for proposals, workshops, program analyses, and other coordination activities. Later this year, I will provide support for the program’s merit review process. I value this experience because I have a better understanding of how researchers build significant research portfolios and how NSF activities impact research and higher education in the US.

Second, Fellows at the NSF have opportunities to 1) see how mathematics is integral to science and science policy and 2) incorporate successful educational and research activities from the greater science community into the mathematics community. I see the value of collaborating with academic communities outside of mathematics; that is, I am a believer in interdisciplinary science. When I go outside of the world of mathematics at the NSF, I learn about computer programming, data-related activities, and useful educational tools/techniques. The freedom to explore these subjects makes the fellowship feel like a true academic setting, which I truly enjoy. 

Your name?
Margaret Callahan

Sen Amy Klobuchar (MN)

Your placement?
I work in the office of U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar of the great state of Minnesota! I work on issues pertaining to education/STEM education, workforce development, and public health.

Your PhD area?
I received my PhD in applied mathematics from Case Western Reserve University in 2016. My doctoral research focused on the development of a novel Bayesian statistical approach for estimating unknown parameters of multi-scale models, focusing on biomedical applications, such as HIV infection dynamics.

Where were you before this?
Prior to beginning my fellowship, I was a Visiting Assistant Professor at Emory University.

How is this experience re-shaping your ideas about your own future?
I left graduate school with little clarity regarding what I wanted my career to be. I knew that I was passionate about STEM education, but I was interested in a career outside of academia; although the value of academic research and its capacity to address societal issues is undeniable, I wanted to work on projects with a more tangible and immediate impact. My experience as an AMS Congressional Fellow has opened my eyes to the myriad roles that scientists can play in the policy making process. It has helped me see that there is a place for me outside of academia where I can pursue my passion for STEM education, explore the intersection of science and policy, and leverage my background in science, education, and outreach to influence the policy making process in a positive way.

Why do you think this is a good or worthwhile experience for other PhD mathematicians?
This experience has given me, as a mathematician, the chance to advocate for science and to bring my own sense of scientific rigor to policy making process. It has provided me with the opportunity to work creatively and collaboratively on problems that are challenging, complex, and have an immediate impact on the people of this country. It has helped me to expand and broaden my professional network, as well as develop and strengthen my skills in communicating to a wide variety of audiences. This fellowship has allowed me to see how my work and perspective is valued by lawmakers, and realize the importance of ensuring that scientists and mathematicians have a voice in important policy conversations.

Your name?
Kyle Novak

Your placement?
The Global Development Lab in the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).  Here, I help to end extreme poverty and promote resilient, democratic societies through better use of science, technology, and innovation.

 Your PhD area?
Applied mathematics. I researched numerical methods for PDES of mathematical physics.

Where were you before this?
I served over twenty years active duty as an Air Force mathematician, most recently at the Pentagon.

How is this experience re-shaping your ideas about your own future?
For me, the AAAS S&T Fellowship is a chance to see first-hand how policy is made and implemented​. Being in Washington, D.C., a short walk from Capitol Hill, federal innovation hubs, and some of the best think tanks in the country, with a diverse network of fellow scientists, allows me to shape my career and create impact as a mathematician in ways I otherwise couldn’t.

Why do you think this is a good or worthwhile experience for other PhD mathematicians?
Many mathematicians don’t follow traditional academic career paths.  The AAAS Fellowship is an opportunity for mathematicians to provide valuable insights to guiding federal policy. In a field like international development, mathematicians can advise on things like blockchain algorithms used in digital finance, differential privacy in responsible data use, machine learning in food security, and systems modeling of adaptive decision-making and learning under uncertainty.

Your name?
Jessica M. Libertini

Your placement?
(Get ready for layers and layers of bureaucracy!)
Department of Defense
Office of the Secretary of Defense
Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition & Sustainment
International Cooperation
International Armaments Cooperation

Your PhD area?
My PhD, granted in 2008, was at the intersection of physiological mathematical modeling, numerical methods for PDEs, inverse problems, and contrast-enhanced medical imaging.

Since my PhD, I have largely pivoted into the field of STEM education, with roughly 75% of my efforts and publications now in that area, although I maintain roughly 25% of my active research portfolio in the area mathematical modeling of complex systems, such as food systems.

Where were you before this?
I was (and still am!) a tenure-track professor at Virginia Military Institute in the Department of Applied Mathematics. Before entering academia, I spent 9 years as an engineer and analyst in the defense industry at General Dynamics.  As an academic, I served on the faculties at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the University of Rhode Island, and I held a National Research Council Davies Postdoctoral Fellowship jointly appointed to West Point and the U.S. Army Research Labs.

How is this experience re-shaping your ideas about your own future?
Wow – great question!  I actually didn’t apply for the sake of advancing or changing my own career, but rather to be more well-rounded for the sake of inspiring the next generation, namely my own students, to consider very important non-traditional STEM careers, particularly in government.  When I read about the goals of the fellowship (the idea that we, as scientifically trained people, could provide an alternative and enlightening view to offices as they shape or implement policy), I thought, well that sounds cool, but I am only one person!  (This is the same realization that drove me to hang up my own super-hero cape working missile defense so that I could help train the next generation to do more to protect the world than I ever could on my own.)  So, here I am, soaking it all in with the expectation that I will return to VMI to prepare my applied mathematics and engineering students to consider a similar path – perhaps not as future fellows (only a handful of my students go on to graduate school) but as civil servants or as persons otherwise engaged in policy issues.  This experience has underscored the importance of having the voice of a scientifically minded person involved in the shaping and execution of policy, and therefore I want to make sure my students realize this non-traditional option exists for them as they begin to think about life after graduation.

Why do you think this is a good or worthwhile experience for other PhD mathematicians?
Hmm…  Initially I thought this would be a tough question for me to answer, because I don’t really self-identify as “mathematician”  –  I am so far out on the pure/applied spectrum that I am a closer fit to an engineer.  However, I think that this experience has been incredibly rewarding for me – not only will I bring back a wealth of experiences to inspire my students, but it also has been a very enriching way to spend a year of leave.  The access and connections as well as the breadth of opportunities I have had as a fellow are unparalleled to anything I have experienced before.  Just as a small sample of examples: within a month of my arrival, I was a guest of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation at the Grand Challenges Conference where I made a connection with an African educator who is interested in partnering with the US on our national math modeling education initiative (headed by SIAM – Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics); a month later, I organized and attended my first of several high-level international engagements between international senior officials and the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (now Acquisition and Sustainment); throughout the fellowship, I have been a guest at a wide variety of private networking functions including Australia’s Science Defence Ball, held at their embassy; and just recently, about halfway through my fellowship, I attended the Singapore Air Show where I had the honor of watching the aerial display at the side of a former fighter pilot, now Air Force general, as he reminisced about his younger years in the air and shared his in depth knowledge about the capabilities of the various aircraft in the display.  If a PhD mathematician wants to get exposure and access to this whole other world of policy, this is an excellent opportunity.

Anything else you want to share?
I think it is important for prospective fellows to know that every office is different – different hiring mechanisms based on placement office (which can be a challenge due to the delay in having information for those fellows trying to go on leave or sabbatical), different funding amounts for travel (and different expectations on how those funds are used), and different opportunities and experiences.  However, one thing that placements have in common is that you have the opportunity to make the experience what you want – and not only within the placement office, but also within your role as a fellow through Affinity Groups and other events.

Your name?
Chris Leary

Your placement?
USAID, in the Bureau for Global Health’s Data Analytic Hub.

 

Your PhD area?
I got my degree in set theory, wrote my dissertation on some ideals associated with some large cardinals.

Where were you before this?
SUNY Geneseo where I am a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor (on the faculty since 1992)

How is this experience re-shaping your ideas about your own future?
I’m much more aware of how my quantitative skills can be applied in the public sphere. Understanding how applied mathematics and statistics can be actually used outside of the academy (as opposed to my standard textbook/lab view that I had earlier) will help me be a better advocate for my students in the future.

Why do you think this is a good or worthwhile experience for other PhD mathematicians?
The Fellowship has broadened my view of both mathematics and the workings of government entities. It allowed me to serve my country and society in a way that is entirely different from my usual teaching role, and has broadened my understanding of the opportunities available to mathematicians at all levels. I can honestly say to students who are interested in, e.g., development issues, that there is a substantive role for quantitatively trained individuals to play in that area.

 The chance to live in DC is a bonus, at least in my opinion. The camaraderie among the Fellows is strong, and that makes the transition here a little easier than it would have been otherwise. The AMS Office of Government Relations, based in DC, has been very welcoming and supportive, welcoming the AAAS Fellows into the community of mathematicians in DC.

WANT TO JOIN THE 2019-20 FELLOWS CLASS?
APPLICATIONS ARE ACCEPTED BY THE AAAS MAY-OCTOBER 2018
THE AMS WILL ACCEPT APPLICATIONS RECEIVED BY FEBRUARY 15, 2019 

 

 

About Karen Saxe

Since January 1, 2017, Karen Saxe is Director of the Washington Office of the AMS which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who impact science funding. Before joining the AMS, Karen was DeWitt Wallace Professor in the Department of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Over many years she has contributed time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS-AAAS Science & Technology Policy Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and serves on the Common Cause Minnesota Redistricting Leadership Circle. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking, skiing, and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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