Thursday, December 1, 2016

Interview: Ryan Stolley, organometallic chemist, AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow and climate change policy advocate

Via random chance, I have been introduced (virtually) to Dr. Ryan Stolley, an organometallic chemist and AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow. This post has been lightly edited for grammar, and checked by Dr. Stolley for accuracy.
Can you tell us a little about your background in chemistry?  
My background in chemistry is mostly in the organic/organometallic space. I did my undergrad at a small (less than 5000 students) liberal arts school with a strong chemistry department and had the opportunity to do both organic synthesis and coordination chemistry research over summers and throughout the year. I then did an NSF REU (research experience for undergraduates) in Thailand doing natural products chemistry. This was an interesting chemistry/cultural/philosophical experience for discussion elsewhere.  
I then did my PhD in organometallic methodology developing Ni- and Pd-catalyzed N-heterocycle forming reactions. I had some pretty good success publishing a number of papers and a book chapter. I have always had a desire for some sort of public service and in undergrad was engaged in the chemistry club and was also chairman for the chemistry student advisory council in graduate school that had votes in retention/promotion/tenure proceedings and was a vehicle for student advocacy and events.  
What did you do after graduate school? What was it like to postdoc at a national lab? 
After graduate school I took a postdoc at Pacific Northwest National Lab. I was working on more nickel catalysis this time in the electrochemical oxidation of H2. Working at a national lab was and can be amazing for a number of reasons. The entire lab is research only and you work with some seriously smart people with excellent resources. However, it's not the utopia that can be often thought of by undergraduate and graduate students. National labs, like academia, have the same issues of being subject to the grant cycle with some serious exacerbations, such as no teaching to fall back on in lean times and serious overhead/indirect rates. However our center was well funded and had an amazing team. Also the pay is above standard postdoc salaries. I was making $60,000/year, roughly triple what I made as a grad student. In a place like Richland, WA the money goes far (it's small and remote) however a place like LBNL (in Berkeley) this isn’t as much. 
As previously mentioned the lab is staffed by mostly professional researchers with a contingent of postdocs and I became involved in the Postdoctoral Council advocating for postdoc concerns (insurance, maternity leave, professional/career development, etc.) to the administration, a similar role I held in the graduate student advisory committee. I began writing for the Energy Frontier Research Center Newsletter while at PNNL and through it found out about the AAAS fellowship. 
Which kinds of scientists would you recommend the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship to?  
Nearly any scientist is available for the AAAS fellowship. I have “fellow fellows” that are astrophysicists, veterinarians, psychologists, public health professionals and synthetic chemists. The fellowship contingent is split in two main types of career paths: the not-so-uncommon scientist that wants to remain in science but doesn’t want to be in the lab, and for those who want to go back to lab but want a policy experience/sabbatical. 
The fellowship has a number of age/experience levels from recent PhD grads to senior tenured faculty and corporate research scientists. A number of positions are available generally split in two groups: Those acting as advisors for congresspersons and congressional committees and those in executive offices like the DOE, NIH, NSF amongst many others. The ACS sponsors two congressional fellowships exclusively for chemists - you have to apply to this directly through the ACS rather than the AAAS. A strong inclination to public service, strategic planning, high energy, disorganized scrambling, and thick skin are common traits for someone who wants to pursue this path.
I chose to work for the SunShot initiative at the DOE. While I have no direct experience in solar technologies, the office is more than happy to have technically savvy, skeptical, and inquisitive people to manage projects/grants and develop new funding opportunities (grants). This is common amongst many offices however many people choose something they are more familiar with or experienced in. The fellowship is for 1-2 years and is an excellent opportunity to provide experience to pivot to something outside of chemistry.
I feel those who want to spread their wings beyond chemistry have a tough time applying for jobs outside lab-work both due to lack of confidence based on the strongly dictated career-path for chemists (industry OR academia) and some lack of experience or how to translate current skills into desirable career traits. This is a good chance to live in a cool city, make some money, and build a skillset and a considerable personal network.  There are other policy fellowships at the DOE (ORISE S&T fellowship) and I hear there are others in DoD and EPA.  
How did you choose your new position? 
In choosing my new position it was a serendipitous find. I wanted to leverage my new expertise to become more involved in renewable/efficiency energy policy and programming writ-large. Both my wife and I are from the west (CA and CO, respectively) and we wanted to get back. My wife is a social worker and has generally had no problems finding employment but as someone who has only just entered the energy space, California is a tough market, particularly in renewables.  
Through a friend, I was recommended the position of Program Manger for the newly formed Utah Climate Action Network. This position would allow me to intersect in a broad swath of energy systems, public outreach and social advocacy. In addition, Utah is a coal producing state with generally conservative values and conveying palatable climate messaging and programs would be an exciting and critically important challenge.  In this role I am able to use my analytical skills and understanding of the mechanisms of climate change for a role beyond lab-work in a socially and politically relevant way. 
Best wishes to Dr. Stolley in his new position, and thank you to him for telling us about his very interesting path! - Chemjobber

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