Changing the Narrative of Public Service

Catherine Chen

Many people think that in order to work in government, you have to study political science, law, economics, or something related to those fields. In reality, public sector employees come from all different disciplines and backgrounds. For Catherine Chen, the journey to public service started with frogs.

As a PhD student studying Biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Catherine never imagined she would end up in public service. Her research focus was on frog behavior and evolution—not exactly a top priority for government. Yet, throughout the course of her PhD, Catherine became interested in research development, which helps researchers identify funding and pulls together teams of researchers to pursue funding. As Catherine explained, “I developed a strong interest in research development throughout my PhD and was looking for opportunities to try and make research partnership teams myself.” 

While exploring ways to delve into research development, Catherine learned about the North Carolina Office of Strategic Partnerships (OSP), a state government entity. OSP’s tagline was exactly what she was looking to learn more about: OSP makes connections between and among government, academia, and philanthropy. Catherine wrote a National Science Foundation grant to work with OSP to examine state agencies’ research teams and successfully received funding to conduct an internship with OSP.

While at OSP, Catherine has made a significant impact in several ways. One area Catherine is heavily involved in is the higher education-to government talent pipeline effort. Her contributions include data analysis for the state-wide North Carolina Internship Program. The program collects demographic data associated with applicants and selected interns, but had little capacity to analyze those data. When Catherine examined the data, she found that the program was doing a good job at ensuring that selected interns were representative of the applicant pool, and that they were diverse from a race and gender perspective. Her work also helped address areas for enhancement, such as opportunities for the program to conduct more outreach to better serve all North Carolinian students.

Catherine also worked on a collaborative project to make sure all North Carolina government employees were vaccinated against or were regularly testing for COVID-19. Of that work, she said, “That was really interesting because that was a multi-organization project. I worked really heavily with the human resources departments and the legal team from the governor’s office to coordinate an initiative to organize all of this data.” As an intern, Catherine became an integral part of the OSP team, applying her data analysis skillset from her PhD education and training to public service.

Following her internship with OSP, Catherine—now Dr. Chen —will be starting a new position as a Strategic Intelligence Analyst at Arizona State University (ASU), helping position ASU to obtain research funding. OSP played a significant role in Catherine’s career trajectory. And yet, she stumbled upon public service by happenstance. As Catherine expressed, “I had never heard anything about government in both undergrad as well as grad school. It just wasn’t getting through to people like me.” 

One way to change that story, to make more students and young people aware of government as an exciting career opportunity, is to let students know about initiatives designed to bring them into the public sector. Another is to keep sharing stories of people from all different backgrounds who work in the public sector. People like Dr. Catherine Chen.