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"I Didn't Plan Any Of This."

Author: Katie Matthews, PhD

I didn't plan any of this.

Not my major in college. Not my master’s or PhD. I got a postdoctoral position at a U.S. government nuclear facility (?!) because I knew how to run their various inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometers and develop analytical geochemistry methodologies. So there I was, an ocean scientist in the high desert of New Mexico, spending her days in a white Tyvek suit, shower cap and booties, alone in the hum of a clean lab. But despite my introverted nature, I found myself missing people, and in any case, I was getting the creeping sense that being a full-time research scientist wasn’t my forte.

A new community points me in an unintended direction.

Somewhere in grad school, on a lark, I joined the board of a small professional society, the Association for Women Geoscientists. I found myself, for the first time, surrounded by mostly non-academics – environmental consultants, petroleum geologists, small business owners, non-profit scientists, and government analysts. Our president at one point worked for a gravel mine. This was the first time I saw career success measured against something other than grant money and publications. These (mostly) women encouraged me to consider options beyond academia, and several were alumni of the various policy fellowships programs offered by professional societies, which placed PhDs inside of the U.S. government. The American Association for the Advancement of Science administers both its own Science and Technology Policy Fellowship program, as well as fellowships from many other scientific societies.

Two years later, I was in the middle, not just of a surprise, but a catastrophe.

I had received one of those fellowships and was now staffing a U.S. Congressman as he led a House committee conducting oversight of the federal agencies charged with tackling the unfolding Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The “spillcam” was streamed live on the committee’s website. Fluid mechanics professors were calling up with flow estimates. I arranged for shipments of oil samples to a company headquartered in my boss’s district – the very same one which manufactured the mass spectrometer I used in my dissertation – so that their scientists could develop a standardized methodology to distribute to labs around the country. (I had a serious fangirl moment when I got my picture taken with the CEO, who mused that he’d never met a staffer more excited about scientific instrumentation.)  “Multi” and “interdisciplinary” get bandied about a lot in research, but I didn’t really understand the breadth of that meaning until I watched federal regulators, Coast Guard officers, analytical chemists, engineers, community organizers, oceanographers, exploration geophysicists, fisheries managers, and Congressional staff all bringing their expertise to bear on one of the largest environmental crises in U.S. history. It was incredible, infuriating, and exhausting.

Wait, fish diplomacy is a thing? Sign me up!

But after a year of learning on the Hill, I was reasonably certain that being a staffer required a kind of stamina I could never sustain. Days booked in half-hour appointment increments, with pivots from medical isotope production to maritime cargo security screening to constituent relations in one afternoon? You have to be a generalist of the highest order! So when the opportunity presented itself to pivot to a government office on a single topic, I jumped.

The Office of Marine Conservation at the U.S. State Department sounded like something I could probably figure out, right? (After all, I had spent the last year in Congress working on at least a dozen different topics for which I had no formal scientific training.) Turns out that the title is something of a misnomer since the office’s primary responsibility was RFMOs. (Dear Reader, perhaps you are now doing what I did in my first staff meeting: surreptitiously Googling “RFMO.”*) While they might have some things in common, I quickly learned that marine conservation is not the same thing as the business of fisheries management. Ten days after my arrival in that office – and armed with a brand-new diplomatic passport – I was on a flight to Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia to attend my first RFMO meeting. 


This is more like it.

I’d been a field scientist, a lab rat, and a Hill staffer. They were fun outfits to try on, and I started getting a sense of what did and didn’t look good on me, though so far nothing quite fit. But this intersection of ocean policy, marine conservation, and fisheries management was starting to feel right to me. I occupied this liminal space among researchers, lawmakers, regulators, civil society and industry. I took pride in bringing useful science to the table, but also humility in knowing that my discipline was just one voice among many. And I loved playing matchmaker, connecting those with policy conundrums to researchers itching to tackle those questions. That’s how I ended up running a grantmaking program with the explicit mandate to co-fund research with civil society advocates trying to change marine policy for the better.

Turns out the scenic route was the only route.

When I declared my geology major at a smallish college in New England, I was mostly excited by my fantastic professors and the promise of field trips. There is no straight line from that to my present occupation as Chief Scientist for a medium-sized international advocacy organization (even if I had known this was where I’d want to end up). But the tools I would need to do this job came through that accumulation of these specific, different experiences. Self-direction and autonomy? Thank you, remote dissertation field site. Persuasive and energetic writing under too-short deadlines? Thank you, Congress. Diplomacy and negotiation? Ah, RFMOs – you still challenge me. The wherewithal to voice my opinion and embrace my role in civil society, despite some advising otherwise? Thank you to the advocates, organizers, communicators, lawyers, and scientists** who showed me how it’s done.

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I wonder how on Earth my particular “scenic route” could possibly be useful to anyone else, but my trial and error seems to comfort those navigating their own departures from academia so I suspect putting this to paper might help a few others – if only by way of one example among many. Because that’s what my story is, just one permutation of the surely infinite combinations of jobs and experiences open to those ready for something different.

* Regional Fisheries Management Organizations: the multinational bodies created via international treaties where Member States gather to make decisions surrounding the catching of highly migratory species, like tunas.

** I’d be remiss to not mention another scientist’s essay I return to regularly: Being a Scientist Means Taking Sides, by Mary H. O’Brien (1993). [pdf also here]

How to cite this page:

Matthews, Katie. (2022). "I Didn't Plan Any Of This." [online] Available at:

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