Dr. Tanya Das, Ph.D. '17 leads a new generation of senior leaders at the Department of Energy
The Biden Administration recently appointed Dr. Tanya Das as Chief of Staff for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Previously, Tanya served as a Professional Staff Member on the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, where she worked on legislation on a range of issues in clean energy and manufacturing policy. She earned her Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the UC Santa Barbara, and her B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Michigan. While at UCSB, Das was a member of associate professor Jon Schuller’s research group, where she studied the effects of illumination engineering on multipolar resonances in sub-wavelength particles.
Tanya takes a rare break from her busy schedule to share her journey thus far as well as the future direction of the Department of Energy.
How would you describe your new role as Chief of Staff for the Office of Science in the Department of Energy?
The Office of Science is a $7 billion office that supports research in the physical sciences, stewards 10 of DOE’s 17 national labs, and supports STEM workforce development and training programs for teachers and students. My job is to implement the priorities of the Biden-Harris Administration at the Office of Science, which includes a focus on climate change and clean energy, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and economic growth.
You did your undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan. What drew you to choose UCSB for your graduate studies?
Having been born and raised in Michigan, I was ready to explore other parts of the U.S. when I graduated from college. I was drawn to UCSB for its combination of excellent academics in my field of interest along with the opportunity to live somewhere new with abundant natural beauty and a whole new coast to explore.
I understand that you were one of the founders of UCSB’s Beyond Academia (BA) annual conference. What motivated you to help build this program on an already packed schedule as a Ph.D. student in Electrical and Computer Engineering?
PhD students who want to pursue careers outside of academia usually don’t have anywhere to turn to for advice on what career options might be available to them or how to pursue those careers, despite the fact that the vast majority of PhD degree holders end up in careers outside of academia. Supporting BA was an opportunity for me to create a pathway for students like myself to explore other career options available to them and start finding answers to big questions like, if I don’t want to do research, what do I want to do with my life? When I was going through my PhD program, it was very rare for students to pursue non-academic careers. I hope this aspect of academia is changing, and I hope universities devote more resources to conferences like BA and organizations like the Center for Science and Engineering Partnerships (CSEP), whose staff was integral to the creation of BA at UCSB, to support the wide range of needs of all their graduate students.
What do you view the most pressing issue(s) to be for the new leadership at the Department of Energy?
The President has set a goal for our nation to achieve a carbon-free power sector by 2035 and achieve net-zero carbon emissions economy-wide by 2050, while ensuring that we are prioritizing the needs of the frontline communities who have experienced the worst effects of climate change. That gives us only 14 years to decarbonize our power sector and 29 years to decarbonize all sectors of our economy, which includes transportation, manufacturing, agriculture, and our homes and businesses. Given the important role that DOE plays in advancing climate science, climate adaptation and mitigation, and clean energy technologies, the steps that the new DOE leadership will take in these coming days, weeks, and years will decide our nation’s fate in terms of climate change. We are in a defining moment in our global fight against climate change and I am certain that the new DOE leadership is up for the challenge.
Do you have any hobbies or pursuits outside of the office/lab?
I have many interests and while I don’t get time for all of them, I love to try new recipes, read fiction, play card games and board games with my partner, build and craft things, paint with watercolors, do puzzles, learn about Tarot card reading...the list goes on. I have many ongoing projects at any given time!
Mentorship is critical, especially while in an academic setting like UCSB. How did mentors help you on your journey?
I will forever be indebted to the women at the Center for Science and Engineering Partnerships (CSEP) at UCSB for the mentorship and support they gave me during my PhD. If not for them, I would never have made it through my PhD program and I would never have ended up on the career path I am on today. The programs that CSEP runs and the staff at CSEP are an underappreciated jewel of UCSB and have helped countless UCSB graduate students like myself develop the skills they need to be successful professionals, essential skills that can’t be learned from just doing research. Dr. Arica Lubin at CSEP was a constant champion for me and is the person who first exposed me to the world of science policy through the AAAS fellowship program, as well as the Beyond Academia conference. Dr. Lubi Lenaburg at CSEP has also been a steady and generous mentor. She took me under her wing and taught me about ways to apply my technical training to assess the efficacy of programs in STEM diversity and undergraduate teaching. They both remain mentors, friends, and allies to this day.
What role does private philanthropy play in graduate education? Were you fortunate enough to receive any fellowship support while you were a Ph.D. student?
As a PhD student, I was lucky to be the recipient of the Broida-Hirschfelder Graduate Fellowship, a fellowship from the Center for Science and Engineering Partnerships (CSEP), and the Michael Pate Optical Sciences Memorial Scholarship. These funding sources were a huge gift to me because they removed my reliance on my advisor for funding and gave me the freedom to pursue my interests outside my research while being a graduate student. Nothing is more important than the gift of freedom.