Seven reasons why I chose to do science in the government

When I was in college, people asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I’d answer, “I want to be of use and to learn always.” The question resurfaced in grad school and at the beginning of my postdoc. I answered that I wanted to do extraordinary science that I’d steer. Academia attracted me most, but I wouldn’t discount alternatives.

Last spring, I accepted an offer to build my research group as a member of NIST, the National Institute for Standards and Technology in the U.S. government. My group will be headquartered on the University of Maryland campus, nestled amongst quantum and interdisciplinary institutes. I’m grateful to be joining NIST, and I’m surprised. I never envisioned myself working for the government. I could have accepted an assistant professorship (and I was extremely grateful for the offers), but NIST swept me off my feet. Here are seven reasons why, for other early-career researchers contemplating possibilities.

1) The science. One event illustrates this reason: The notice of my job offer came from NIST Maryland’s friendly neighborhood Nobel laureate. NIST and the university invested in quantum science years before everyone and her uncle began scrambling to create a quantum institute. That investment has flowered, including in reason (2).

2) The research environment. I wouldn’t say that I have a love affair with the University of Maryland. But I’ve found myself visiting every few years (sometimes blogging about the experience). Why? Much of the quantum community passes through Maryland. Seminars fill the week, visitors fill many offices, and conferences happen once or twice a year. Theorists and experimentalists mingle over lunch and collaborate. 

The university shares two quantum institutes with NIST: QuICS (the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science) and the JQI (the Joint Quantum Institute). My group will be based at the former and affiliated with the latter. We’ll also belong to IPST (the university’s Institute for Physical Science and Technology), a hub for interdisciplinarity and thermodynamics. When visiting a university, I ask how much researchers collaborate across department lines. I usually hear an answer along the lines of “We value interdisciplinarity, and we wish that we had more of it, but we don’t have much.” Few universities ingrain interdisciplinarity into their bones by dedicating institutes to it.

Maryland’s quantum community and thermodynamics communities bustle and produce. They grant NIST researchers an academic environment, independence to shape their research paths, and the freedom to participate in the broader scientific community. If weary of the three institutes mentioned above, one can explore the university’s Quantum Technology Center and Condensed-Matter-Theory Center

3) The people. The first Maryland quantum researcher I met was the friendly neighborhood Nobel laureate, Bill Phillips. Bill was presenting a keynote address at Dartmouth College’s physics department, where I’d earned my Bachelors. Bill said that he’d attended a small liberal-arts college before pursuing his PhD at MIT. During the question-and-answer session, I welcomed him back to a small liberal-arts college. How, I asked, had he benefited from the liberal arts? Juniata College, Bill said, had made him a good person. MIT had helped make him a good scientist. Since then, I’ve kept in occasional contact with Bill, we’ve attended talks of each other’s, and I’ve watched him exhibit the most curiosity I’ve seen in almost anyone. What more could one wish for in a colleague?

An equality used across thermodynamics bears Chris Jarzynski’s last name, but he never calls the equality what everyone else does. I benefited from Chris’s mentorship during my PhD, despite our working on opposite sides of the country. His awards include not only membership in the National Academy of Sciences, but also an Outstanding Referee designation, for reviewing so many journal submissions in service to the scientific community. Chris calls IPST, the university’s interdisciplinary and thermodynamic institute, his intellectual home. That recommendation suffices for me.

I’ve looked up to Alexey Gorshkov since beginning my PhD. I keep an eye out for Mohammad Hafezi’s and Pratyush Tiwari’s papers. A quantum researcher couldn’t ignore Chris Monroe’s papers if she tried. Postdoctoral and graduate fellowships stock the community with energetic young researchers. Three energetic researchers are joining QuICS as senior Fellows around the time I am. I’ll spare you the rest of my sources of inspiration.

4) The teaching. Most faculty members at R1 research universities teach two to three courses per year. NIST members can teach once every other year. I value teaching and appreciate how teaching benefits not only students, but also instructors. I respect teachers and remain grateful for their influence. I’m grateful to have received reports that I teach well. Because I’ve acquired some skill at communicating, people tend to assume that I adore teaching. I adore presenting talks, but I don’t feel a calling to teach. Mentors have exhorted me to pursue what excites me most and what only I can accomplish. I feel called to do research and to mentor younger researchers. 

Furthermore, if I had to teach much, I wouldn’t have time for writing anything other than papers or grants, such as blog posts. Some of you readers have astonished me with accounts of what my writing means to you. You’ve approached me at conferences, buttonholed me after seminars, and emailed. I’m grateful (as I keep saying, but I mean what I say) for the opportunity to touch lives across the world. I hope to inspire students to take quantum, information-theory, and thermodynamics courses (including the quantum-thermodynamics course that I’d like to teach occasionally). Instructors teach quantum courses throughout the world. No one else writes about Egyptian sarcophagi and the second law of thermodynamics, to my knowledge, or the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin and reproductive science. Perhaps no one should. But, since no one else does, I have to.1

5) The funding. Faculty members complain that they do little apart from applying for grants. Grants fund students, postdocs, travel, summer salaries, equipment, visitors, and workshops. NIST provides primary investigators with research funding every year. Not all the funding that some groups need, but enough to free up time to undertake the research that primary investigators love.

6) The lack of tenure stress. Many junior faculty members fear that they won’t achieve tenure. The fear pushes them away from taking risks in their research programs. This month, I embarked upon a risk that I know I should take but that, had I been facing an assistant professorship, would have given me pause.

7) The acronyms. Above, I introduced NIST (the National Institute of Standards and Technology), UMD (the University of Maryland), QuICS (the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science), the JQI (the Joint Quantum Institute), and IPST (the Institute for Physical Science and Technology). I’ll also have an affiliation with UMIACS (the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Science). Where else can one acquire six acronyms? I adore collecting affiliations, which force me to cross intellectual borders. I also enjoy the opportunity to laugh at my CV.

I’ve deferred joining NIST until summer 2021, to complete my postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard-Smithsonian Institute for Theoretical Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics (an organization that needs its acronym, ITAMP, as much as “the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science” does). After then, please stop by. If you’d like to join my group, please email: I’m accepting applications for PhD and postdoctoral positions this fall. See you in Maryland next year.

1Also, blogging benefits my research. I’ll leave the explanation for another post.

I credit my husband with the Nesquick-NIST/QuICS parallel.

This entry was posted in News, Reflections by Nicole Yunger Halpern. Bookmark the permalink.

About Nicole Yunger Halpern

I'm a theoretical physicist and an ITAMP Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Institute for Theoretical Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics (ITAMP). Catch me at ITAMP, Harvard physics, or MIT. Before moving here, I completed a physics PhD at Caltech's Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, under John Preskill's auspices. I write one article per month for Quantum Frontiers. My research consists of what I call "quantum steampunk" (https://quantumfrontiers.com/2018/07/29/so-long-and-thanks-for-all-the-fourier-transforms/): I re-envision 19th-century thermodynamics with 21st-century quantum information theory, and I use the combination as a new lens through which to view various fields of science.

2 thoughts on “Seven reasons why I chose to do science in the government

  1. Its not enough to do research, publish papers and teach to classes of students who take student loans to pay for their classes any longer because those students do not have a way to monetize their knowledge on their own and end up defaulting on their student loans leading to a national debt crisis of trillions of dollars proportions. Universities need to be sustainable through concurrent applications of knowledge by their students to generate income streams for their obligations.

  2. Congratulations on joining NIST. It’s a very nice research environment. I think you will thrive there. I recommend using the freedom from publish-or-perish pressures to take the time to pursue long-term research projects and think deep thoughts.

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