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Epstein received his Ph.D. in Astrophysics from the University of California, Berkeley in 1984, working on cosmic background radiation experiments with George Smoot. But he had a long-standing interest in science and social issues. As an undergraduate at MIT, he held an internship with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, and worked on arms control issues as a graduate student as well.
He came to the OTA through its fellowship program, which is coordinated with other Congressional fellowship programs of scientific societies like the APS and the American Institute of Physics, shepherded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Epstein sees such fellowship programs as an ideal way for young scientists to gain a foothold in government careers.
While his job is far removed from the traditional academic research environment, Epstein said he doesn't miss doing physics, although he found it an exciting subject for study. He appreciates the broad aspect of his work, and finds plenty of opportunities to apply the problem-solving and analytical skills gained from his physics training. However, the position is not without its drawbacks. "One of the things you give up by coming to work in a place like OTA is your soapbox," he said. "If you've got the answer to the world's problems, you're not going to be able to broadcast it from here. It's not our job to push any one person's answer."
The recent proposal by Congress to eliminate OTA's funding from the federal budget has placed the agency's future in question, but Epstein believes many opportunities still exist for scientists interested in combining their background with a career in public policy, on Congressional staffs or in various agencies in the Executive Branch. "The barrier has lowered a little bit. People with technical backgrounds are not so foreign on Congressional staffs as they were when these programs were first set up," he said.
He suggests that young physicists interested in pursuing a career in public policy volunteer at the local government level or have other interests and activities that demonstrate their interest in public policy. While conceding that it's possible for someone to apply for such positions directly, "It's going to be tougher coming from a pure science Ph.D. program. You're going to have to show that you have some understanding of how the political process works to gain entry there directly."
Research Triangle Institute
Since receiving her Master's Degree in Physics from Northwestern University in 1972, Debbie Franke has found ways to apply her physics background in no less than seven distinct nontraditional positions, most within the Research Triangle Institute (RTI). RTI is a non-profit research institute in Raleigh, North Carolina, founded by local universities.
Franke was first attracted to physics as an undergraduate at Luther College in Iowa. "I thought quantum mechanics and relativity were the neatest things ever, and I wanted to do high energy physics," she said, and decided to go on to graduate school even though research funding was becoming scarce.
Unlike many aspiring young physicists, Franke was realistic about her career options. "I knew I probably never would be able to work as a physicist," she said. The closest she came to her dream of doing high energy physics was one summer at Iowa State University's Atomic Energy Commission Laboratory, and a year at the French Atomic Energy Commission Laboratory at Saclay, working on Fortran computer programs.
Instead, Franke took a job as a computer programmer for the electric company in Raleigh, where her husband is a university professor of mathematics, moving to scientific COBOL programming for EPA air quality and emissions programs at RTI soon after. In 1980, RTI became one of the founding partners of the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina (MCNC). Since her EPA funding had dried up, Franke volunteered to start a program in microelectronics design at RTI, which already had programs in semiconductor material and fabrication research.
One of her microelectronics projects for the Department of Defense led to the development of the Architecture Design and Assessment System (ADAS), which aids programmers who do hardware and software codesign. In 1984, she became manager of commercial development of ADAS, including aspects in marketing, sales, user support and training. Four years later, ADAS was so popular that the marketing rights were purchased by a commercial company.
Once again, Franke looked for another position within RTI. With the passage of the Clean Air Act Amendments in 1990, the environmental area seemed promising. She took over management of a department that did research in oceanography and meteorology, where she had a program in pollution prevention. A year later, she became manager of a department doing environmental microbiology and indoor air quality research, and while she didn't work in the lab, she did help with field studies. Since last year, she has managed an environmental program for the electronics industry.
While her work has not been "pure" research, Franke has found her physics background helpful in her overall approach to problem-solving. "Physics is not about memorizing facts or numbers; it's about figuring out the right way to approach a problem, and then working on the problem until you have a solution," she said. She also advises young scientists to keep learning, perhaps by taking courses in business, management, and computers, as well as physics. She earned a second Master's Degree in Electrical Engineering from North Carolina State University and has taken numerous management courses.
Franke remains realistic about her prospects. "Because government funding is decreasing in all areas of research, I fully expect that there will be more careers to come, and that they may not be at all similar to the earlier ones," she said. "My advice to people is, if you like physics, study it. But don't necessarily get a Ph.D., and don't expect automatically to get a job in it." Above all, said Franke, "Stay flexible. You may have to change jobs or careers more than once. Start looking for new opportunities when funding is low."
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