Miriam Quintal | Chemists in the Real World
Miriam Quintal is driven by the big picture. Though it wasn’t on her radar as an undergraduate, she developed an interest in policy after a seeing a talk by the Director of the National Academies Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology and volunteering during the 2008 presidential election.
Partway through her Ph.D. program in organic synthesis, she had the opportunity to participate in the Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Fellowship at the National Academies in Washington D.C. She relished viewing science and technology from a different perspective, and sharing that perspective with others.
“I had been a teaching fellow several times in graduate school, including a head teaching fellow, and wanted to learn more about science education policy,” Quintal says. “Therefore, during my fellowship I worked with the Board on Science Education, where I learned about the federal role in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education as well as the theory and research behind teaching and learning. The fellowship also exposed me to science policy careers and the various possibilities through career talks by program alumni. One of the talks was on lobbying, which I had not previously considered as a career option.”
The fellowship program provided Quintal with a directory of alumni, so she sent emails to alums and asked them to get coffee or lunch. These informational interviews proved essential for expanding her network and learning more about the options. “Through one of my informational interviews, I learned of a website where congressional and lobbying jobs are posted. I started checking that website and applied to an open position that was posted there to find my current job.”
Quintal says that the science policy world is quite broad, with scientists working in government agencies, congressional offices, think tanks, industry, and scientific societies. Quintal left graduate school with her Master’s degree, but says she doesn’t necessarily need a graduate degree for her work, though in other positions—such as at federal agencies—a Ph.D. is necessary to advance.
“It’s very rare that I use actual chemical knowledge,” she says, “but graduate school taught me a lot about how to think and how to problem solve, the grant process, and how scientific research is conducted.”
For undergraduates interested in policy, Quintal recommends pursuing policy internships and other policy education when possible. “When looking for a policy job right out of college, it’s a very competitive pool with people who majored in government or political science,” she says.
For graduate students, fellowships are a great way to make the transition to policy. She notes that, “to be competitive, it’s important to show an interest in policy and issues beyond your research by participating in ACS policy activities, taking a public policy class, or engaging in local or university policy issues.” As additional advice, she says that, “for both undergraduate and graduate students, writing is a key skill to hone as it’s crucial for all policy jobs.”
Now, Quintal works with Lewis-Burke Associates LLC, a full service government relations firm that represents universities and scientific organizations. “We both lobby for our clients and provide in-depth policy analysis and strategic advice related to federal funding and agency opportunities,” Quintal explains. She leads teams serving three clients: the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, the University of Iowa, and the Associated Universities Inc., which runs the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. She also covers STEM education, computer and computational science, materials science, and chemistry for the firm as well as the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
What is your major responsibility in your current position?
My firm manages federal relations for research universities, scientific societies, and facility management organizations. We both lobby for our clients and provide in-depth policy analysis and strategic advice related to federal funding and agency opportunities. For the firm I lead teams serving three clients: the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, the University of Iowa, and the Associated Universities Inc., which runs the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. I also lead the firm’s efforts in computing and computational science, materials research, astronomy, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education.
My advocacy successes have included shepherding large scale science projects through the appropriations process, restoring funding for key programs proposed to be eliminated in the President’s budget request, and creating opportunities with the White House for clients to showcase their research and leadership in Administration initiative areas. I work with and cover agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. I also collaborate with partners in higher education associations and scientific policy coalitions, including a leadership role in the Association of American Universities (AAU) Innovation Task Force, organizing community advocacy surrounding NSF.
What's a typical day on the job like?
There is no typical day at my job, but I spend a lot of my time on a few different types of tasks. First and foremost I do a lot of writing: writing letters, testimony, policy white papers, strategic memos to clients, and updates on trends or opportunities. I also organize events, like planning a briefing on the Hill or organizing a meeting and speakers for a client's science policy committee. I also spend time meeting with agency officials and congressional staff, to gain background on new initiatives, provide information on client activities, or further a specific lobbying agenda. Another common task is arranging meetings for clients with both congressional staff or members and agency program staff or leadership, providing talking points and background, and accompanying clients on the meetings.
Are there any apps/software/instrumentation/tools that you can't live without?
Microsoft Office and my iPhone for on-the-go email and web access. I also use subscription services such as Leadership Directories and Congressional Quarterly.
Describe your work environment.
I work in my own office, which is equipped with a computer, phone, and printer. At my firm we work closely together on projects and there is a lot of collaboration.
Does your job follow a typical 9-to-5 schedule?
I work about 45 hours a week although I used to work around 50 hours before my son was born earlier this year. Overtime is not officially required but it would be very hard to complete all of my work within official work hours. The environment is pretty fast paced and everyone is very professional and dedicated to their work. The hours are nothing like graduate school, and most everyone leaves the office by 6:30 or 7:00 pm each night at the latest.
What is your best productivity trick?
I work best when I break things down into clear chunks with clear deadlines.
What's the best career advice you've received?
It's important to not get too caught up in any particular career plan and to instead take opportunities when they arise and continue to do what interests you.
What personal talent or trait makes you a great fit for your job?
My ability to work on diverse topics and connect with different audiences.
How have you benefited from being an ACS member?
I liked the conferences I attended as an undergraduate and graduate student and the journals were among the best in the field for organic chemistry. These days I don't have that much connection to chemistry in my job, so I’m no longer an ACS member, though I do collaborate with the ACS government relations staff on issues of mutual interest (like climate science policy or federal funding for research).
It's important to not get too caught up in any particular career plan and to instead take opportunities when they arise and continue to do what interests you."