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PEI-STEP Fellowship Program Forges Crucial Link to the Policy World

Ning Lin
Ning Lin *10, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton University, spent two years during her doctoral studies as a Fellow in the Princeton Environmental Institute and Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs interdisciplinary fellowship program in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy (PEI-STEP). (Photo courtesy of Ning Lin)

Ning Lin *10, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton University, is immersed in risk analysis, stochastic modeling, and tropical cyclone-related weather extremes. She is a scientist through and through. And yet, she talks with government officials on a weekly basis.

The fact that they all speak the same language of applied science and practical solutions has a great deal to do with the two years Lin spent as a Fellow in the Princeton Environmental Institute and Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs interdisciplinary fellowship program in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy (PEI-STEP).

Lin, who received her Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering from Princeton in 2010, has an impeccable resume of academic achievement. But it was the PEI-STEP Fellowship, she said, that forged the crucial link with the policy world.

“Especially for the problems I am interested in – hurricane damage and climate change – it’s so closely related to people’s daily lives,” said Lin. “In order to make your work have immediate and great impact, you need to communicate with policy makers.

“So now, I work with scientists. I work with engineers. But we communicate very well with policy makers. That skill is so important, and the PEI-STEP Fellowship Program is where I became better at it.”

Lin’s conclusion is echoed by Bryan Mignone *06, who was a PEI-STEP Fellow more than 10 years ago. Mignone is currently director of the Office of Climate and Environmental Analysis at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Bryan Mignone
A PEI-STEP Fellow more than 10 years ago, Brian Mignone *06 is currently director of the Office of Climate and Environmental Analysis at the U.S. Department of Energy. (Photo courtesy of Bryan Mignone)

In Mignone’s case, the PEI-STEP Fellowship Program was the perfect complement to his Ph.D. work at Princeton. It allowed him the flexibility to tackle basic scientific questions while developing skills essential for their practical application. For example, the economics courses he took through PEI-STEP grounded his geosciences training in the “basic tradeoff questions” that he now deals with on a regular basis in Washington, D.C.

“For me, the courses were quite interesting because they were an opportunity to really learn economics. This is maybe not how everyone uses their time, but it was really a chance to learn that skill set. Just having one microeconomics course can dramatically change the way you think about policy questions. It has turned out to be very relevant,” said Mignone.

Mignone also credits PEI-STEP with promoting a collaborative approach not seen at many graduate schools. Princeton encourages broad, multidisciplinary relationships among its PEI-STEP participants.

“There are not too many places where you can be fully immersed in a science program, but also have this opportunity to really explore your policy interests on a separate track,” he said. “I’m not aware of many places where this cross- cutting, interdisciplinary fertilization happens. Princeton has really taken the time to set that up.”

“Every university that’s serious about its students contributing to solving the world’s biggest problems has its particular approach to interdisciplinary graduate education,” said Michael Oppenheimer, director of the PEI-STEP Program, the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, and a member of the PEI faculty. “PEI-STEP is Princeton’s unique approach, and judging by the career directions of the fellows, it’s a highly effective one,” he said.

Now in its 14th year, the PEI-STEP Program was created as an affiliation with the Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs providing Princeton graduate students with the opportunity to develop an in-depth policy component to their doctoral research. The two-year program runs concurrently with doctoral studies in the field of graduate concentration. Participating students are required to take at least three courses at the Woodrow Wilson School. Among the diversity of recent offerings are courses on Information Technology and Public Policy, Risk Policy and Regulation, and The Use of Science in Environmental Policy.

PEI-STEP Fellows are also required to complete a paper of publishable quality, produced either as a free-standing document or as a policy component of their doctoral thesis. Fellows select one of Woodrow Wilson’s faculty members as a PEI-STEP advisor, in addition to their graduate departmental advisor.

Fellows are selected by competitive application each spring. Enrolled students typically begin classes in the second or third year of graduate study. Upon enrollment in the Program, PEI provides half financial support (tuition and stipend) for two years. Fellows also receive a $3,500 award to apply towards their graduate research.

This year, four PEI-STEP Fellows have been selected, including students  concentrating in engineering, chemistry, and oceanic sciences. The 40 alumni of the Program are pursuing careers in multiple sectors, ranging from academia to government work to industry and to non-profit organizations.

For both Lin and Mignone, it became clear at an early point in their studies that a program like PEI-STEP was a singular opportunity. Neither was especially keen on a traditional academic career in science, or a career spent entirely in a laboratory. In fact, Mignone took time off after receiving his undergraduate degree in physics from Cornell University to work, as he put it, “in the real world.” That experience helped to convince him to veer away from “life in a laboratory.”

“I came to Princeton for a couple of reasons. I wanted to stay close to science, but I wound up doing work on climate change, which obviously has a bit more relevance to social and policy issues,” Mignone said. “And it just occurred to me that there were ways to take my science background and channel it in a way that could inform broader social issues.”

Mignone suggested that PEI-STEP is useful to both practitioners and researchers--a crucial consideration given that many graduate students are unclear about their post-doctoral direction. “The skill set one learns is a given,” he said. “But the “hooks” and contacts that the PEI-STEP Fellowship Program provides to a wider community of scholars from different fields invariably proves its worth farther down the road.”

A climate engineer, Lin became a PEI-STEP Fellow principally because she knew she wanted a practical platform for her work. But she also praised the atmosphere of cooperation between her engineering department and the Woodrow Wilson School, which made it easier for her to acquire new policy and communication skills. “This was one of the PEI-STEP Fellowship Program’s greatest gifts to me,” she said.  

For her own part, Lin advised graduate students in science and engineering disciplines seeking an education in policy to embrace the PEI-STEP opportunity as a way to augment their primary research.

“Students have to make it clear what they want. As scientists and engineers, we have to have our strong disciplines and be very strongly rooted in them,” said Lin. “And then, you make a link to the policy.”