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Career Conversations: Graduate Alumna Elizabeth Zeitler ’14 on Science Policy

Profiles- - By Tien Nguyen, Department of Chemistry
Research Area:
Elizabeth Zeitler

In this Q&A, Elizabeth Zeitler ’14, a graduate alumna from the Bocarsly lab, shares her experience and advice for pursuing a career in science policy. Beth is a chemist working with people to connect to opportunities through energy and transportation. Currently, she is a transportation analyst and AAAS Fellow at the Millennium Challenge Corporation, examining the impact of roads investments on lives of people in low- and lower-middle-income countries. She works with people in MCC’s partner countries to increase quantity, quality and access to open data. In her doctoral research at Princeton, Beth focused on building energy-dense, liquid fuels from carbon dioxide, a problem which presents questions in electrochemistry and in energy policy. After defending her dissertation, Beth completed a Mirzayan Fellowship at the National Academies and joined the staff of the Academies, facilitating studies on vehicle technologies and leading a study of energy resource development on DOE lands. Beth is an Iowan and an Americorps alumna. In her personal life, Beth enjoys cooking and riding her bike around D.C.

1) How did you get interested in science policy? 

I am interested in how things work. Learning new ways to figure things out is part of why I pursued chemistry. There are so many interesting questions that have chemical components, and the way a chemist approaches a problem is useful inside and outside of chemistry. Throughout my intellectual development in schooling and outside of it, I’ve seen connections in science and society. When I came to grad school after a stint in Americorps, I specifically sought a project in chemistry and energy, which I saw as a great challenge. At Princeton, we all have a rich opportunity to pursue our intellectual interests, and I was lucky to find many willing colleagues and stimulating initiatives from which to learn about science and society.

2) What steps did you take to learn more about science policy as a graduate student?

Mentors: Princeton has great resources for anyone interested in interdisciplinary work, and for those interested in policy in particular. Look for mentors who can help you learn about things that interest you. I was lucky to work for Andy Bocarsly on energy related chemistry. He proved to be a great supporter of my interests. I had a number of other professors and fellow grad students who also served as mentors to me.

Collaborations: In my dissertation work, I collaborated with other scientists and engineers approaching our work from different perspectives. Learning how other disciplines look at problems through conversations is especially helpful. Andy was very supportive here, too. He thought of me and introduced me to people engaged in policy and economics questions related to our work.

Talks: At Princeton, I went to as many talks that interested me as I could; look at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton Environmental Institute, and the Andlinger Center. Going to a talk is great, but taking opportunities to meet speakers and other professors and students is even better. If you can get involved in the groups that invite and host speakers, you will learn a lot and meet interesting people. The groups doing this on campus are constantly changing, so keep your eyes open for opportunities to meet for informal conversations about topics that interest you.

3) What exactly is science policy? What kinds of jobs are available in science policy?

Policy is how we get from a current state to a preferred state, ideally informed by evidence. Policy enters when things aren’t working right. (Aside, politics is the means to decide what is right, so keep that part of the process in mind!) Science policy is both policy for science or science for policy. The former is things like setting funding priorities for science research or education. I’ve worked in the latter, science for policy, which helps to inform policy with evidence and scientific thinking. All areas of policy can benefit from science advice and scientific thinking. The areas in which I’ve worked are energy, transportation and government assistance to foreign countries. If you are interested in a problem in any area, then you can probably pursue a rigorous way to investigate or help to solve the problem with science knowledge or skills.

4) What experiences in graduate school helped you obtain your first position after graduation as a Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Fellow?

Talking to and learning from people with expertise different from mine was the most important thing for me. I met people through friends in other departments, through going to talks and hosting speakers, and through formal programs such as my DOE SCGF Graduate Fellowship and my participation in the Rutgers-Princeton NSF IGERT in nanotechnology for clean energy. When I was planning to try something outside of chemistry after defending, friends were able to offer advice on fellowship opportunities available. The way of learning and problem solving I developed in my Ph.D. is critical, as is having a clear qualification as a scientist. This helps you solve the problems you are looking to impact, and helps others see that you can help them in their work.

5) Can you tell us about your role/responsibilities as an Associate Program Officer at The National Academies?

At the National Academies, we provide science advice to the Nation. In my role as an Associate Program Officer, I managed studies related to my areas of expertise, which grew from electrochemistry to energy and transportation. I spent about a third of my time researching topics related to my studies (vehicle technology efficiency or fuel economy economics, for example), about a third of my time writing/editing text and creating visual work for our reports, and about a third of my time meeting with our experts on the phone and in person. I liked the mix of tasks, the interesting projects, and the direct relevance to regulations that will have a large impact on our nation’s GHG emissions.

6) In what ways do you use your graduate training in your work now?

The biggest thing I can offer is a chemist’s way of thinking, particularly a chemist who is used to talking to engineers, economists, etc. This helps me to see different avenues to solve problems. On science-related topics, I can understand an area quickly, explain the science to others, and vet the content for correctness. At the National Academies and very occasionally at MCC, I am able to answer a question because I’m a chemist, and specifically an electrochemist. For example, editing a chapter in our fuel economy report about emerging battery technologies was very easy for me to do and much harder for my colleagues. 

7) Can you describe the work you’re currently doing as an AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow?

I work for the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. government foreign assistance agency. We work with low- and lower-middle-income partner countries to invest in projects that will reduce poverty by removing constraints to economic growth. We often fund country-led infrastructure projects such as roads, energy reforms, agriculture and land projects and water and sanitation projects. I am establishing a research agenda so we can better understand how our roads projects impact the people in our partner countries. This will help us to build projects that have greater positive impact. I am also working on issues of open data, and using it to increase collaboration with citizens in our partner countries.

8) What advice would you give to a student who is thinking about going into science policy?

Pursue topics that are interesting to you. Learn from others’ experiences in those areas and learn to talk about issues from your perspective as a chemist. If you see your interests leading towards interdisciplinary work, figure out where you can get the training or experience to ask and answer the kinds of questions that interest you. If your interests are going towards chemistry research, pursue that! There are plenty of ways for practicing academic, industry and government scientists to be involved in shaping policy. More importantly, scientists and engineers in research can shape the world so that we get to a desired state without needing a policy intervention.