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After Nearly Bombing in College, a Career in National Security

After an uncertain academic debut, OSTP's Tammy Taylor caught the bug for chemistry, physics, and national security, launching a career that today involves technology policy advice to the White House.

[Ed. Note: Recently, OSTP began highlighting first-person tales by some of the women scientists and engineers working here—part of a larger effort by OSTP and the Obama Administration to encourage girls and women and other under-represented groups to study and pursue careers in these fields. It’s also a great way for us at OSTP to get to know one another better and to learn interesting tidbits about each other's pasts—as is the case with today’s post.]

As an engineer and Senior Policy Analyst here in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, I am enjoying a rewarding career exploring issues that surround such complex questions as “What is the best way to respond to a radiological emergency, such as an accidental contamination event or intentional nuclear incident?” and “How can America best safeguard nuclear materials and support nonproliferation?”

But my future was not always so assured.

When I started college, my primary objective was rather simple: to graduate and obtain a secure job. My family had moved a total of six times during my childhood as a consequence of layoffs that affected the mining industry, where my father was employed. My parents were adamant that a college education could result in stable employment opportunities. I was interested in engineering right from the beginning, but found college overwhelming in comparison to my small town upbringing in New Mexico and Arizona. I also found it challenging to be in a discipline that was clearly under-represented by women and craved the companionship of girlfriends. Three-quarters of the way through freshman year, I quit. I packed up my dorm room and convinced my mother to move me home during spring break.

My reprieve was brief. Monday morning following spring break my parents moved me right back and I asked the Dean of Engineering to give me the opportunity to finish my freshman year. He reinstated my scholarships and provided me the gift of a second chance. It was during that final one-quarter of my freshman year that I came to appreciate that your “roots”—as valuable as they can be—can sometimes root you a bit too securely to familiar places and situations and work against your deepest desire to move on and try new things. It takes courage, and support from a community, to break ties and form new ones.

Happily I found that support from teachers, mentors and fellow students, and the pursuit of education became my grand passion for the next nine years. I worked in cooperative education programs throughout undergraduate and graduate school, earning a Bachelor’s of Science in civil engineering from New Mexico State University and a Masters and PhD in environmental engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology. I intended to pursue a career in academia as a research professor, but prior to accepting a position opted to delay that path to acquire post-doctoral experience at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). My experience at LANL changed my career ambitions. I found my true calling in a career supporting our national security through nuclear nonproliferation; research to support emergency responder preparedness; and environmental remediation. I turned down my academic opportunity and joined the LANL Chemistry Division as a research engineer two years after starting my post-doc.

I have three pieces of advice, particularly for women considering a career in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM), all formed as a consequence of my personal path in an engineering and science career.

First, you don’t have to love math or science to earn a career in STEM. You only have to possess courage and determination. The benefits of a career in STEM far outweigh the challenges of math and science.

Second, take your education to the highest level that you can. A doctorate in a STEM discipline provides not only a stable employment platform but the opportunity to choose your career direction and be your own boss.

Third, volunteer early and often. I started tutoring in the sixth grade and I have learned so much more from the people that I have tutored than they have learned from me. Volunteer as a tutor, work in a soup kitchen, or clean medians in your neighborhood. Do what you can to give back to your community and learn from the people you meet on your journey. It’s as certain as a law of physics: you will get back 100-fold.

Tammy Taylor is a Senior Policy Analyst in OSTP’s National Security and International Affairs Division