For engineering physics alum Eric Breckenfeld, pursuing a career in policy as a scientist involved—in many ways—taking an interest in the right things, at the right time.
Breckenfeld, who was recently appointed an AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) science and technology policy fellow at the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO), took an early interest in STEM education and sustainable energy. While pursuing his bachelor’s degree at UW-Madison, the freedom of the engineering physics major allowed him to take a variety of courses that stimulated his interest in these topics, which are now at the forefront of innovation in engineering.
For instance, as a senior, he took a course through the Department of Educational Psychology that involved developing an educational video game. With the Epistemic Games Group, led by Professor David Shaffer, he was able to work with other students to build a game called Nephrotex, a bioengineering module that takes students through the challenges of building a medical device in a bioengineering company. This experience was the root of his continued interest in STEM education.
After completing his senior thesis and graduating in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics with a focus in nanotechnology, Breckenfeld—a native of Kenosha, Wisconsin—moved to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to pursue his PhD in materials science and engineering.
During his graduate education, he mostly studied sustainable energy principles through the Energy and Sustainability Engineering (EaSE) program, while also continuing to pursue opportunities within the STEM education community. In 2013, he joined CUDO (Champaign Urbana Design Organization), a group that promotes collaboration among STEM, art and design. He helped develop a program called CUDO Plays, a board game design competition aimed at introducing the public to the unique design forums that large research universities tend to foster.
“We realized that on these campuses, you have a lot of high-tech design tools, like 3D printers, but people don’t know how to use them, or aren’t sure what to actually create with them,” Breckenfeld says. “You have these makerspaces, but they don’t always get enough attention, so this provided a reason to investigate all these tools that exist, and are free.”
Through collaboration and outreach, CUDO Plays hosted an art show for the community, where the 12 teams in the competition competed for different awards, and displayed their games to the public. In this way, people were exposed to the principles of design and were able to see firsthand the capabilities of some of these engineering tools; nearly 250 people attended the final event.
“At the end of this event, I was reminded of my STEM education work as an undergraduate through Nephrotex, and thought that maybe I should go back in that direction,” he says.
Through his engagement with the public, Breckenfeld has seen the benefits of bringing science into a more public forum, and this has greatly influenced his idea of how certain issues, like renewable energy and climate change, should be presented and discussed.
“These issues are not things that can be solved solely through science and engineering,” he says. “There are significant components which are political, economic and societal, for which scientific data is not sufficient to convince people. That is where education and community outreach are crucial.”
After receiving his PhD, Breckenfeld accepted a research position at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., as an NRC postdoctoral fellow, and was also weighing the possibilities of pursuing a faculty position. He continued (and still continues) to do STEM-related volunteer work in his free time, working at schools in Virginia and D.C. to help teachers set up scientific demonstrations for K-12 students. In May of 2015, with the aim of pursuing his passion for STEM education in a non-university setting, he applied to the AAAS science and technology policy fellow program.
After a months-long interview process in which AAAS weighed the skills of applicants and matched their strengths with those of specific government offices, Breckenfeld was offered placement within several executive branch offices, ultimately choosing the NNCO. He began his new position in September 2016.
“A lot of scientists don’t really have an idea of what the other side of the coin looks like,” he says. “As students, we only saw what our academic advisor’s career paths looked like—postdoc, professorship, tenure. But there’s a whole other side in government—what does government work for a scientist look like? So that’s the point of the fellowship: to help scientists better understand what goes on in government.”
By joining a larger discussion about the broad implications of fields like nanotechnology, Breckenfeld is taking steps to improve scientific literacy and community engagement.
For the next two years, he will be working with the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office—which provides services such as technical support, administrative support, R&D coordination and public outreach on behalf of the White House’s National Nanotechnology Initiative—to help fuse his interests in both sustainability and STEM outreach, with an overarching focus in nanotechnology. Above all, this position will allow him to greatly expand his scope—since most of his career so far has involved studying interesting, but narrow avenues of research.
So far, his involvement has allowed him to help organize technical workshops, perform outreach, develop nanoscience education materials, and work with educators. He acts as a point of contact between government offices, academic researchers and industry professionals, helping organizations coordinate their research efforts, and thus build better connections. By doing so, he plays a fundamental role in the implementation and commercialization of nanoscale research– a major goal of the nanotech coordination office.
“I won’t be in a lab,” he says. “I’d like to get away from the bench for a bit and start looking at broader issues with more societally relevant implications. The National Nanotechnology Coordination Office will allow me to pursue both STEM education and energy sustainability, while also building upon my technical background in nanotechnology.”
Author: Lexy Brodt