Abigail Sheffer ’00
Associate Program Officer, Space Studies Board, The National Academies
I came to Princeton deeply in love with physics after a fantastic high school class. However, after a long freshman year and my first C grades, I decided that Princeton physics didn’t love me back. Fortunately, I had taken a freshman seminar in geosciences where we spent a week stuffed into vans exploring Death Valley, Mono Lake, and other terrifyingly named geologic wonders. I was again in love, and I switched majors.
For my junior summer, I took an internship at the Carnegie Institute of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory. I was given a slice of the Martian meteorite Nahkla and unrestricted access to an electron microprobe. At the end of the first week, I had thoroughly explored the twisty mineralogical structures that would become the subject of my senior thesis, nearly blown up the probe, and again fallen thoroughly in love. I was holding a piece of another planet. I went out at night to find the red sparkle of Mars in the sky, and my mind boggled that I was studying a rock that had flown all the way from that tiny speck.
My Princeton adviser was enthusiastic about helping me finish the summer project for my thesis, and I continued on to graduate school for planetary science. After two years of classes, I found myself struggling with my research topic. I had intended to continue experimental studies of Mars’s geochemistry, but instead I was far from the lab, writing a thermodynamic modeling code in the archaic language of Fortran 77. Although I had taken enough programming classes at Princeton to have a basic knowledge, I was not particularly talented at this, and forging through endless if-then loops nearly sank me.
A leap toward policy
I did finish (after seven years!), and I earned my Ph.D. However, I had strayed from what I loved, and the idea of continuing into a research career no longer appealed. So I took a wild leap and moved to Washington, D.C., without a job. I reached out to Princeton friends in the area and attended science policy happy hours, thinking that policy was a way I could stay plugged into the science community. At one of these events, I learned about a science policy fellowship at the National Academies. The deadline was in three days! My references came through for me in a pinch, and I applied to the Space Studies Board.
This fellowship was three months of learning how science influences policy and vice versa. Even pure research, which I had always considered a sacrosanct activity, has to justify its funding. It was at the boundary of science and policy where I found my new niche, and after making myself indispensable, I was offered a position as an associate program officer. I’m still learning to herd scientists, and now I also can learn about solar physics, geologic studies from space, biology in microgravity, international space policy, and much more.
It was not an easy path to find my career, but now I can see that all of the steps along the way were necessary. Princeton’s wide-ranging curriculum serves me well when I have to quickly switch to working with a new discipline, and my in-depth graduate work gives me the language to speak confidently with eminent scientists. I don’t think I ever took the safe, practical choice; I let my passion for the subjects guide me. And now, I love what I do.