ECE Alumna Appointed Chief of Staff of the Office of Science

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Tanya Das, who received her PhD in electrical and computer engineering from UC Santa Barbara in 2017, has been appointed to a senior position in the Department of Energy (DOE) by President Joe Biden’s administration. She is the new chief of staff to the Office of Science. 
“This position is a dream job,” said Das, who was a member of associate professor Jon Schuller’s research group at UCSB where she studied the effects of light engineering on multipolar resonances in nanoparticles. “It is an incredible honor to be appointed to advance climate change and racial equity for an administration led by one of the politicians I most respect, President Joe Biden, and the first Black and South Asian and first female Vice President, Kamala Harris.”
With a $7 billion budget, the Office of Science supports research in the physical sciences, stewards ten of DOE’s seventeen national laboratories, and supports workforce development and training programs for teachers and students in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.
“My job is to implement the priorities of the Biden-Harris administration at the Office of Science,” said Das. “I hope to support the phenomenal staff at the Office of Science by rebuilding its focus on climate science, climate adaptation and mitigation, and clean energy, while strengthening partnerships with the frontline communities who have experienced the worst effects of climate change. I also hope to advance programs that instill the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM programs and the national labs that the Office of Science supports.”
Das has been applying her training as a scientist to evaluate and improve policy in Washington, D.C. ever since she completed her doctorate from UCSB in 2017. She was named a 2017-18 Arthur H. Guenther Congressional Fellow by the Society of Photographic Instrumentation Engineers and the Optical Society of America (SPIE/OSA), serving a one-year term as a special assistant on the staff of U.S. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. The fellowship provided insight into the inner workings of government as she worked to support the senator’s economic policy team, as well as professional training opportunities by the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS). After the fellowship, she joined the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology as a professional staff member, where she worked on a range of issues in clean energy and manufacturing policy until her appointment to the Office of Science.  
Das says that she developed the essential skills she needed to succeed in Washington both inside and outside of the research lab at UCSB. A member of Professor Schuller’s research group, Das worked in the field of metamaterials, exploring new ways to manipulate light using nanoparticles by changing a property of light known as polarization. 
“My work in the Schuller Lab helped me gain a solid understanding of the research process and federal funding mechanisms for our nation’s scientific research enterprise,” said Das.
For two years, she also was a program evaluator at UCSB’s Center for Science and Engineering Partnerships (CSEP), which focuses on improving the educational and career outcomes of current and future scientists and engineers. She worked at CSEP on the American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics (AIM Photonics) initiative to assess the needs of the photonics industry in the state of California, as well as on various other projects at UCSB and the University of Washington to evaluate the effectiveness of STEM diversity programs and to assess learning in STEM courses. Das said that her work outside of the lab helped her understand the broader context of her research and how it fit into the nation’s scientific goals. 
“It was my work with CSEP that helped me realize how I could apply my scientific skills to policy,” said Das, who evaluated coursework and programs, such as the effectiveness of a design capstone chemical engineering course. “CSEP programs and staff are an underappreciated jewel of UCSB and have helped countless UCSB graduates like myself develop the skills they need to be successful professionals, essential skills that can’t be learned from just doing research. Without the experience and mentoring that I gained with CSEP, I would not be on the career path I’m on today.”
Das said that her supervisor, Lubi Lenaburg, CSEP’s evaluation and assessment program manager, provided the guidance and mentorship she needed to launch a career in science policy. 
“From Lubi, I learned how to use my scientific training to analyze, for example, the efficacy of programs aimed at increasing the retention and graduation rates of underrepresented STEM undergraduate students,” said Das, who remains in close contact with Lenaburg. “While at CSEP, I also  gained a broader understanding of the work that scientific agencies like DOE steward, and the roles they play in advancing our nation’s research goals, beyond the narrow view I had as a student researcher.”
Lenaburg and Schuller say that they are thrilled to witness Das’s success. They believe her story shows students in STEM fields that there are more career options available than the traditional pipelines of academia and industry. 
“Tanya was very hard-working and affable, it's no surprise she found such success in public service,” said Schuller. “She is a testament to why graduate students should think about their long-term career goals during their PhD and work to develop the skills and experiences that will best propel them toward success.”
Lenaburg hopes students and faculty see the potential value of graduate students working outside of their research labs to develop other skills and interests that can open up additional doors of opportunity. 
“Tanya’s story shows that students need to think about what they are passionate about and find a career path that aligns with that,” said Lenaburg. “Tanya really wanted to use her expertise in science to help the world be a better place. You can do that in a lot of ways, and no one way is better than another, but she really put some thought into it, researched options, and felt called to public service and science policy. She believes in her mission and that drives her. I know we will continue to see great things from her. This is only the beginning!”
“While this isn’t an option for everyone due to individual financial and familial circumstances, I would encourage students to consider being selfish in the pursuit of their curiosity while they are in school,” said Das. “As an engineering student I think it can be particularly difficult to break out of convention and do what interests you. But the world really is your oyster and being in school is the perfect time to explore all that is available to you, not just on campus but in the broader Santa Barbara community and in California as well. Try things that interest you, and know that it’s OK to be bad at things at first, and that you will get better.”

Related People: 
Jon Schuller

Tanya Das, Chief of Staff for the Office of Science