Career Paths

“You Already Know This Process—It’s the Scientific Method”: Dr. Corinne Allen on Moving From PhD to Science Policy & Tech Transfer

Brittany Trang

Dr. Corinne Allen obtained her bachelor’s at the University of Oregon and her PhD in chemistry at UC San Diego. For her postdoc, she worked at PolySpectra, a light-activated 3D printing start-up incubated in the Cyclotron Road program at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. She was an AAAS Science and Technology Policy fellow at the Department of Energy’s Tech-to-Market and Tech Transition offices for two years before working for the DOE’s APRA-E program. In 2020, she began her current position at the New York State Energy Research Development Authority (NYSERDA), where she is a project manager in the tech-to-market team.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Dr. Corinne Allen
Dr. Corinne Allen

On getting interested in chemistry:

Have you always wanted to do tech transfer? How has your vision for your career changed over the years?

Going into undergrad, I was stereotypical, Asian, “I’m going to med school!” I was actually a human phys major going in. And then I had a dream one day that I couldn’t get into med school if I was only a human phys major, so I added on a chemistry major the next day, which worked out! I joined a research lab working with Professor Darren Johnson focusing on arsenic remediation from drinking water. That was my first foray into chemistry research outside of a lab course, and I really loved it to the point that I eventually ended up going to grad school at UC San Diego.

While I was in undergrad and still pre-med, I went on a medical mission trip. When I was there, in combination with really loving doing research work in the lab, I realized I just couldn’t imagine my life without the lab part. I thought, “Maybe I’ll do a MD/PhD…oh my gosh, that sounds terrible; I don’t want to do that. I guess I just go to grad school. I’ll help people from the lab.” When I decided to go to grad school, I thought, “Maybe I’ll do pharma or stay a professor, something academic, but whatever it is, I need a PhD to do it; I’m certain.”

On confusion in grad school and using her postdoc to figure out what she wanted to do:

Hopefully times have changed, because grad school was not a very supportive environment. I failed my master’s exam the first time and had all of these setbacks in the first year—even though I got an NSF fellowship. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to finish, but I talked to a bunch of postdocs who said, “Look, 5 years of your life isn’t that much in the grand scheme of things, and having a PhD will really open doors that you wouldn’t even know existed if you didn’t have it,” and I said, “All right, I’ll finish. Also, I’ll mess up NSF’s stats if I leave.” (laughs)

When I left, all I knew is that I didn’t want to do chemistry anymore. I knew that I did not want to stay in academia, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. Job searching wasn’t going well because on paper I was really only qualified to do chemistry, and I didn’t know how to get out of that. When I saw the opportunity to do a half-research/half-startup postdoc at PolySpectra, I said, “Perfect! That is the world I would like to explore.”

Polyspectra is a light-activated 3D printing company that was being incubated at a program called Cyclotron Road at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. I was very upfront with [the Polyspectra CEO] that I would be in the lab only as long as I had to, and then I would work my way out to a different position. I was in the lab for about a year, and then I was their operations director for not quite a year before moving to DC. Working at PolySpectra was my first time really experiencing doing research from a product development lens where the end goal stays the same rather than the sort of journey of regular [academic] chemical research, which was a challenge.

Seeing firsthand in my postdoc how much effort it took to take a technologist like a PhD and learn all the different skillsets that you need to be successful in running your own company really got me interested in program development and supporting entrepreneurs and innovators broadly. Later on, at ARPA-E (the Advanced Research Project Agency Energy), one of the things that I realized is that there isn’t a great community to support entrepreneurs domestically. Since we funded companies across almost all 50 states, there’s no good way to really coordinate or talk between the different entities: what states need what types of solutions, what technologies are available. I really focused on the community-building angle—the support infrastructure for entrepreneurs and innovators.

On how she figured out what to do after her postdoc:

I remember that after your postdoc, you were looking for advice for where to move on. What was the path that you took to figure out what to do after postdoc?

I did a lot of informational interviews. I talked to a number of different people at Berkeley Lab, people at the Advanced Light Source, people in the bio division, just to get a sense of what their life looks like—does that sound appealing?—and trying to put together what an ideal job description would look like for me.

When I was in grad school, my PhD adviser had suggested that I do the AAAS [Science and Technology Policy] fellowship. But you don’t listen to your PhD adviser when you’re in grad school, right?

It’s like your parents!

Yeah! So, I ignored that, but I talked to Branden, the deputy director at the Molecular Foundry at Berkeley Lab. And then Branden said it, and one of my other friends who was in the [fellowship] program said, “I think you’d be really good at this, since you seem to be very good at facilitating conversation between different types of people and across sectors. Policy could be a good avenue for you.”

In putting together your ideal job description, was it based on, “I want to have this sort of work - life balance and so these are my requirements,” or was it, “I want to make a difference and these things are important to me in what I physically am doing every day?”

Definitely more prioritizing the “I want to make a difference.” I had always thought about green chemistry, but I hadn’t had a good opportunity from that area. Energy is a pretty good fit; it incorporates some green chemistry because there’s an environmental component to energy and climate, so that checked that “I’m adding value to the world” box.

After that, it was as you said, thinking through “Do I want to work on a team, or do I want to work by myself? Is it some combination of the two? Do I want to be a contractor where you’ve got to hustle all the time, or do I want something a little bit more stable?” Before I started this job, I was an independent contractor for a couple months, so I got to see that life. It didn’t seem like something I wanted to do long-term.

On what working in government is like:

During my AAAS Science and Technology Policy fellowship, I worked in the Department of Energy’s Tech-to-Market office. I also worked in the Tech Transitions office, which is basically the legislative aspect of tech transfer, focusing on programs, policies, and incentives that can help get technologies out of the national lab system and into the marketplace.

Then I spent some time at ARPA-E, who is focused on super-early-stage, high-risk, potentially-very-high-rewarding technologies for carbon abatement. And from there, I ended up at NYSERDA, which is the New York State Energy Research Development Authority. I’m a project manager at the tech-to-market team there, again focusing on what can we do at state level to hit our climate goals.

What do you do at your job in NYSERDA? What is it like?

High-level, the idea is, we talk to a lot of people and discover what the needs of the different stakeholders are. Then we think about how we can develop a business case around new programs that are within NYSERDA’s jurisdiction and budget that we think could be catalytically changing in a certain industry or area. If we seed some money in an incubator program, will that drastically change the number of new technology startups that are in the area or in the state that we could then use for our statewide climate abatement goals?

Day-to-day, I’ve taken over existing project management and contract negotiations. I came in after they’d already made awards, but the actual contracts hadn’t been signed yet, so I got to learn all about procurement law in New York State and have talked to a lot of lawyers! We also have team meetings about what we are seeing across our portfolio of companies and programs. What’s called our “leverage ratio” is very important to us—if we put in $100, are we seeing $600 in return, or are we seeing $80 in return?

One of the biggest pushes I’ve had recently is reevaluating our metrics collection. You can’t improve what you can’t measure, and I’ve been working on putting together a way to help our companies figure out what their greenhouse gas emission reduction potential is.

Academia rewards very long hours in general, but in industry, they have very strict rules about when you need to leave, which really encourages people to do other things. What do you feel like the environment is like in government?

There’s been a contrast between federal government and state government, and even within state government there’s been differences. I want to touch on the fact that there are differences in incentives. A lot of industry keeps 9-to-5 for a safety perspective, right? If everybody’s gone, you cannot be working there; they don’t want to be liable if anything happens.

In federal government, again, it comes down to incentives. You’re just not incentivized to work as hard as you can and as fast as you can, and if anything, you’re incentivized to do everything last minute because leadership decisions might change until the last minute. So whatever work you produce, you might have to scrap it all anyways, which is not great.

I actually had a tough time working in that environment. As soon as I knew information, I wanted to hand it off and get it out to everybody, and they just said, “But it doesn’t matter if we do it today or Monday?” and I said, “I…I mean I guess technically, no, but how—like, compounded over a whole career, how much can you get done?” That was one of the reasons I couldn’t stay in federal government. That was really, really tough. Where I currently am is slightly different. We’re not an agency; we’re an authority, so we get funding from a different place. There are elements of more government-y people and then some of the newer people are more McKinsey (consultant)-like.

On how her PhD and postdoc skills transfer to government work:

Are you using a lot of skills that you learned in your PhD—taking in a lot of information that you’ve never learned before, synthesizing it, and then using that do to something? Or do you mostly have a PhD in this position so that you understand the basic scientific aspects of it?

Definitely more the intangible side and the methodology around approaching a new problem. Every single day, I need to go learn about economic policy; I need to go learn about innovation policy; I need to go learn about the finance world and be able to figure out what terms to search. There’s a lot of Googling; there’s a lot of talking to people.

Since I’ve done less program management since the shelter in place, I’ve been doing more of these bigger thought projects, which are exactly that: take an area you’re not super familiar with, learn everything you can about it, come up with what you think is the best hypothesis, and then go talk to people.

When I was a fellow in DC, I would give lectures to the other fellows about customer discovery and say, “Look, you guys already know this process. It’s the scientific method but related to product development. So, you want to make sure that you’re developing things that people care about, and the experiment is going outside and talking to people and getting their input/feedback and incorporating that into your work and goals.”

What kinds of skills or experiences are you grateful for having in your current career? Are there things you wish that you had done or learned earlier in your grad school or postdoc years, or do you think your training set you up well for what you’re doing now?

I [wish my PhD adviser had explained to us] how they do budgets, what the grants look like, and the backend side of lab operations, because when I got to the startup, I was just like, “What is an indirect fee? What is an indirect cost?” when trying to put together my own budget. I’d never heard of these words before. There’s a very steep learning curve because I was so sheltered, which I get—you just want everybody to focus on their research—but I wish I had learned how that integrated earlier on.

In terms of skillset, I think it took me a while to understand the value of being able to communicate to people who were not also metal organic framework chemists. I think it would have worked in my favor if my PhD adviser had explained why it was important for me to get that across instead of just saying, “You really need to sell your research!” In hindsight, most of the people on my committee were not of my background by design; I could have reframed my dissertation and my talks in ways that would help them understand the context and value in what I was doing way differently or at least made it easier for them.

That’s a skillset I learned at the startup, but it was also out of need. “We need to be able to convince investors to fund us, so we need to be able to figure out a way to convey what we’re doing in a way that is investor-friendly!” I do wish I had that earlier on. It’s a [critical] skillset to be able to get across your very unique thing that you’re doing to a diverse audience quickly. That’s tough. Also, never speaking in acronyms, which is a pet peeve of mine. Everybody speaks a different language, and every acronym means something different!