December 13, 2022

Clarissa Bhargava, the Lab’s new Federal Relations Officer, is actually a Lab boomerang (returning employee). She earned a PhD in materials science from UC Berkeley and worked at the Lab before spending time in Washington, D.C.

Clarissa’s interest in materials science grew out of her interest in renewable energy. She chose her major as an eighteen year old after googling “What is the field that makes solar cells?” When the answer was materials science, she thought her path was set. Learn more about how and why her path pivoted from scientific research to science policy.

Tell me about your position as Federal Relations Officer. What do you do?

This is a newly created position, and I work with Jonathan Nurse, who is the Director of Federal Relations for the Lab. Jonathan runs the team from D.C., and I’m based here in Berkeley. We are the Lab’s liaisons to the federal government, with most of our focus on the legislature – the U.S. Congress. We build relationships with our Senators, Representatives, and Congressional staff, and we keep them apprised of the Lab’s expertise and needs. We have two core responsibilities: 1) facilitating technical feedback and scientific input into the policymaking process, and 2) ensuring the Lab has the necessary resources to advance its mission for the country.

Our job is anything that supports that dual mission, whatever that looks like in a given week. No two weeks are the same!

Congressional offices exist in an ecosystem of advocates, think tanks, lobbyists, and stakeholders from Federal agencies and other tiers of government. Understanding how that ecosystem works, being able to translate what's going on in various large scientific communities, and getting folks on Capitol Hill excited about it amongst all their competing priorities is a huge undertaking, but it’s an important one. If you can break through in a couple of key places – if you can nudge national policy – you can make a difference felt for generations.

Let's backtrack a little bit and talk about your background. What brings you to the Lab?

My background is in materials science. I did all five years of my PhD work at Berkeley Lab while I was a student at UC Berkeley, so I'm familiar with many parts of the Lab like the Materials Sciences Division and the Energy Sciences Area. I was a Molecular Foundry user and was lucky to use the incredible electron microscopes there, with the gracious help of the Foundry staff. So, I already knew how incredible the Lab was from my own experience.

I’d spent my PhD striving to become a domain specialist with a very narrow focus – working on a field within a field. But I saw overarching problems in the broader research environment that might be solvable at the policy level, and in turn, I felt that many policies could be better informed by scientific evidence. I wanted to see what I could contribute to science – and society – by becoming more of a generalist.

With the support of my mentors at Berkeley Lab, I got a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship in Washington, D.C., and I worked in the U.S. Senate for what turned out to be a very consequential year. I advanced energy, climate, and innovation policy with an incredible team of public servants. Among other things, I helped to support the mission of science and innovation at the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, including its seventeen national laboratories, in both the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act.

As my fellowship was coming to a close, I started looking at ways to stay at the intersection of science and federal policymaking, and I was made aware of this new position at Berkeley Lab. Things just fell into place, and it’s great to be home!

Clarissa at Berkeley Lab treating molybdenum disulfide monolayers with a superacid to improve their optoelectronic properties

Pausing for a photo with her boss, Senator Ben Ray Luján, a couple of weeks after passing the CHIPS and Science Act and just a few days before staying up all night to pass the Inflation Reduction Act

Practicing chemical vapor deposition by growing graphene on a copper film in Braga, Portugal

What are you most excited about in this role?

I am most excited about strengthening the familiarity of our researchers with the federal government, especially Congress, and also getting Congress excited about what the Labs can do so we can really unleash our potential. It is important to communicate Berkeley Lab’s impact on our community, on the economy, and on the scientific pipeline – both the STEM workforce pipeline as well as the technology and innovation pipeline – to keep our legislators engaged and supportive.

My personal goal is to help us all live better lives on a healthier planet. I think the Labs are incredible powerhouses when it comes to technological advances and scientific talent, addressing problems of truly global importance. Some of the best researchers in the world come and flourish at the Labs because we strive to support them and let them do their thing. I’ll do everything I can to empower them.