Going into Defense After Your Defense: An Interview with Dr. Edlyn Levine

Edlyn Levine, PhD

Dr. Edlyn Levine currently works as a Senior Engineer at the MITRE Corporation, a not-for-profit defense contractor that operates multiple federally funded research and development centers. She is also jointly appointed as a Research Associate at Harvard University’s Department of Physics. Edlyn holds a Ph.D. in Applied Physics from Harvard University and a BS in physics from the University for Pittsburgh. Before going to work at MITRE, she interned twice at the oil field services company Schlumberger during her graduate work. We recently had an in-depth conversation about her experiences and career trajectory:

Matt: Hi, Edlyn. Thank you for taking the time to speak to me today. I appreciate it.

Edlyn: Not a problem at all.

Matt: So, you are currently a senior engineer at MITRE.

Edlyn: Yes, MITRE Corporation.

Matt: First, how would you describe MITRE, because I think that’s probably someplace a lot of folks have not heard about. Second, what is your role and what is it like to work there?

Edlyn: Sure thing. MITRE Corporation is a defense contractor, but it’s a not-for-profit defense contractor that works in the interest of the federal government. So, we actually hold a very special place as a trusted advisor to the federal government on all matters ranging from technology, scientific advice, acquisition programs, to even strategy for example in the service of the Defense Department or intelligence communities. We recently expanded to other areas, such as healthcare and the judiciary. MITRE runs what are called federally funded research and development centers, or FFRDCs. We actually run seven of those for the federal government.

Matt: Interesting.

Edlyn: Then, you asked what was my role there, or what do I do?

Matt: Yes.

Edlyn: What is work like there? As a senior engineer, that’s my title, I actually work mainly in physics. I support the research and development side of a lot of the program work we do for the federal government. Really, it is a research role that I play. Not everyone in MITRE does research, as I mentioned. If you’re supporting acquisitions programs, then you’re advising, essentially on a consulting type basis. For myself, I get to do research in technical matters and scientific matters that are essentially emerging technologies, stuff that the Department of Defense should be aware of.

Matt: Okay. When you say research, do you mean in the lab or researching the literature?

Edlyn: I’m a computational theoretical physicist. I never go into the lab, but we do have lab work and I do support my experimental collaborators. My work ranges anywhere from, yes, looking at the literature and seeing what’s happening, what’s the cutting edge that we need to be aware of and therefore the Department of Defense needs to be aware of, but also doing research ourselves. Our internal research looks at answering the questions that we see as the next up-and-coming technologies.

Matt: I’d ask you what you are working on, but I know better.

Edlyn: Yes, probably best not to say.

Matt: Since you are in defense, I assume that involves a security clearance and working on classified stuff?

Edlyn: Right. It does.

Matt: So, what is your product? You probably aren’t writing papers for journal articles, right?

Edlyn: We do write papers. They have to go through a public release process though. So, as long as it takes to submit to a journal and get feedback from the editor and the reviewers and that whole process, you need to add to that the process of getting whatever manuscript you’ve written approved internally in MITRE to send out to the journal in the first place. We definitely do still publish.

Matt: Oh, really?

Edlyn: Yes. It depends on what it is we’re doing; how primary the research is. We need to be careful on both sides of the coin, because we handle information which is sensitive to the federal government, and we also handle information from other contractors that is sensitive because it’s proprietary. If we’re looking at technologies, for example, that say other contractors, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, are looking to contract with the federal government, perhaps through an open bid, then we also need to be very careful with handling that and keeping it confidential.

Matt: I see. I’m guessing publishing in an open journal’s probably a small fraction of what you do. Mostly it’s internal reports and things? Is that about right?

Edlyn: Yes. We do mostly internal reports, but we do try to maintain our presence with publications. This is a difference, or an interesting fact about switching into defense as opposed to working in academia. In academia, you have much more of an open discourse, which I find scientifically to be very valuable. When you transition into working in defense, you unfortunately let go of that a little bit because of the sensitivity of the material that you’re dealing with.

Matt: Right, I think it’s not just defense, any sort of private industry is very similar. We’re very similar. We do publish some. However, when you’re a business you’re looking to generate, in our case, intellectual property or proprietary knowledge that you can use in a product. So, it’s hush-hush for different reasons, but it’s still necessary to keep things confidential.

Edlyn: Certainly. Yes.

Matt: Great. That’s very interesting. Let’s dial it back a little bit and talk about how you got interested in physics in the first place.

Edlyn: Oh, wow. Back in the first place going to college and so forth.

Matt: You started out in college as a physics major, right?

Edlyn: No. Actually, I didn’t start out as a physics major in college. Interestingly, I was bioengineering at the start. In high school, I remember indicating on, I think it’s Pre-SATs and SATs, that I was going to major in physics, and then I changed to bioengineering because I tracked for pre-professional programs, which essentially means that you can get into a professional school during the college application process. I applied to dental school while I was in high school, and was given admission both to college undergraduate as well as dental school. That was what I was going to do. When I got into my first semester of classes, I remember taking both electricity and magnetism and cell biology, and hating one and loving the other. That was the … I don’t know … the beacon of truth saying you shouldn’t force yourself to study something that you don’t want to do. I ended up choosing physics as my major very quickly after that first semester. It was interesting choice, because I had no idea what physicists do professionally. I don’t have any physicists in my family. Both my parents are physicians, and my more extended family has a lot of engineers, so a lot of family professional life was either dealing with engineering or healthcare. Switching to a physics major, I remember talking to my parents about it saying, “What do physicists do?” We had no idea. It’s been a journey.

Matt: A bit of a leap of faith for you then, huh?

Edlyn: Yes. It’s a pursuit of passion. It really is, and it really was. I felt, and still do feel, a calling for it and a genuine passion for the subject, which I think is also a requirement to go to graduate school. By deciding to go into a PhD program, I essentially punted the question of what to do career-wise. I remember the summer after my freshman year, I was working in one of the physics department’s labs, talking to the graduate students about graduate programs and then starting to scour where it was that I wanted to do my PhD. I was already thinking to do a PhD after my freshman year. It was a pretty quick change. As for what I would do professionally, I didn’t have that in mind until much later.

Matt: Okay. You were just focused on graduate school because that’s what you do when you study physics?

Edlyn: Yeah. There’s such an enormous amount of information to learn. I say that even now, having finished my PhD. Being a physicist is being in a constant state of learning. I was quite copasetic as an undergraduate just absorbing as much as I could, and beginning the process of learning to answer questions that haven’t been answered before. That means research. Then, graduate school is a further augmentation. You get deeper into the subject matter in terms of learning, but then also confront that boundary of knowledge that really epitomizes the pursuit of knowledge or research. That whole process was enough to capture my attention, engage my passion. You know that there’s a graduation date coming, but it wasn’t necessarily front and foremost in my mind, because I was so happily distracted with the work of being a student.

Matt: You didn’t go in to graduate school with any preconceived ideas about your career then?

Edlyn: No. I would say perhaps the only preconceived idea I had was that physicists become faculty, and stay in academia, because that’s all I had been exposed to, but I didn’t think too deeply about it.

Matt: Okay. You did Applied Physics at Harvard, right?

Edlyn: Yes, I did.

Matt: I believe your dissertation was about models of cavitation and super-heated water, something like that?

Edlyn: Yeah, that’s exactly right. It’s extreme localized super-heating, and then subsequent vapor bubble nucleation in strong electrolytes.

Matt: How’d you get involved in that?

Edlyn: It was non-deterministic, shall we say.

Matt: I like that.

Edlyn: In choosing a research group, there are three essential problems that you try to solve, at least that I was trying to solve. The first was choosing a topic of research that I found interesting. The second was finding a mentor whom I could work well with. The third was finding a group that I could also work well with. All three components are important, I think. Subject matter you’re interested in and good advisors are self-evident. Having a good group, I don’t think many people think about, but these are the guys and gals that you spend the next five, six years of your life with in a very close proximity. You need to surround yourself with, first of all, people who are very intelligent, very smart, but also who are open, collaborative, and don’t engage in undercutting. I often think of the chemistry department when I think about that, because for some reason, they have a reputation of being more cutthroat than physicists.

Matt: Yes. I usually like to remind graduate students looking for a group that your relationships with your group-mates are going to last longer than a lot of marriages.

Edlyn: Oh, yeah. That’s exactly right.

Matt: You’ve got to be careful.

Edlyn: Yeah. Also, given that they are your peers as opposed to your advisor, my advisor was already later in his career, so I look at my group-mates as being the scientists that I grew up with, that I will have a lifetime of interaction with. That’s something which is incredibly rewarding. Yes. I agree with that completely.

Matt: You chose well then?

Edlyn: Yes. That’s the thing. When you asked how did I get into this research, I primarily chose the group. The first parameter I had solved for in that case was my advisor. He and I have, and had from t is equal to zero, an incredibly good relationship. I remember the first time I met with him. He spent four hours talking to me. He’s tenured faculty at Harvard. How many faculty members are going to take four hours out of their afternoon to talk to a student who has just matriculated, who may or may not join their group? We talked about different areas of physics, research topics, the state of the field, just about everything. I decided, based on that interaction, that I wanted to work with him. His group was also, as I mentioned, good, and then the research topic came from what he did. His group studies physics on the nano scale that could be probed with nanopores, which are small holes that are fabricated in thin, insulating membranes. His particular focus is looking at how these can be applied to DNA sequencing.

I told him I wasn’t terribly interested in DNA per se, so we explored what we could study in terms of the extreme limits of thermodynamic stability. That was how we came to the problem of super-heating, extreme super-heating, and then nucleation in a solid state pore. That’s how it came about.

Matt: Neat.

Edlyn: It was a journey. It was fun.

Matt: Now, I think we previously discussed that he was also instrumental in your career trajectory planning as you came to the end. That included encouraging you to do something that is rare but more people probably should pursue, which is an internship in industry during graduate school. Is that right?

Edlyn: Yes. Twice, actually.

Matt: Twice?

Edlyn: I did two summer internships. Yeah, exactly, which is incredibly rare.

Matt: Right.

Edlyn: Especially given the fact that I finished my PhD in five years, which is now relatively short. That used to be the average. Again, my advisor and I have a completely candid relationship, and we had lots of discussions, as I was getting to my third year and beyond, about what I wanted to do career-wise. His perspective did color my outlook. He had spent most of his career in industry. He was at Bell Labs for decades, and that was an incredible experience as he described it to me. He encouraged me to examine my options. He said if I wanted to do academia, that’s certainly one way, but that’s only one way out of many that you can pursue a career in physics. He recommended that I talk to other faculty about potential opportunities, and that was ultimately how I set myself up for an internship.

Physicists in industry, and you learn this subsequently, will reach out to physicists in academia for collaborations research-wise, but also for talent acquisition and recruitment. Who are your top students? Would they be interested in coming to do research at my company? It so happened that one of my committee members had a contact at Schlumberger, which is an oil field services company, and their research lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts was looking for interns. I jumped at the opportunity. I contacted the research PI there, and he offered me a position for that summer, and that was my first venturing forth from academia to see what else was out there.

Matt: Then you did another summer at Schlumberger as well?

Edlyn: Yes. I liked it well enough that I decided I wanted to come back for a second year. We arranged that I would go to their research lab in the United Kingdom for a summer. I worked on two very different topics both summers, and it gave me a breadth of understanding of the type of research that is done at a company like that. They have a huge array of applied technologies and underlying physics that needs to be understood in order to do what it is they do.

Matt: Clearly, you went the extra mile to actually do an industrial internship, and you even did it twice. How did you feel about the internships clarifying what you wanted to do in the rest of your career? Was it a very useful thing for you?

Edlyn: Yes. It was incredibly useful. It was incredibly useful because culturally, as physicists, we normally stay in academia until we get our PhD. That’s opposed to, for example, a lot of engineers, I think, might leave after their undergraduate work, and then come back later for a master’s or a PhD. For physicists, really, you go undergraduate to graduate school, so all you know is academia. There’s almost a somewhat limited perspective that all good research happens in academia. I think that that might also be a symptom of what you and I had spoken about before, that physicists who transition into working for private companies are going to spend most of their time writing patents, for example, and dealing with proprietary information, or classified information in the case of defense, so they can’t publish. Potentially, students don’t see that cross-section when we go to academic conferences and so forth.

Jumping into industry and getting a taste for it, for one summer, and in my case, two summers, opens your eyes. In fact, really good physics is done, and really good research, really in-depth research is done in the private sector, and in my case now, the public sector, which are satisfying intellectually in a way that I couldn’t have even anticipated just coming from academia.

Matt: Interesting. As you point out, a lot of people, especially those that do not do any internships, are at a university nine or 10 years solid by the time they finish a bachelors and PhD. Were there any particular habits that you picked up through those nine or 10 years that were particularly ill-suited or well-suited when you crossed over into industry, either in the public or private area?

Edlyn: I would say mostly things that are well-suited for what I do. Had I switched to something professionally that did not involve physics, then still, you learn problem solving skills and so forth and that can translate into whatever it is you do. I think the most important skill, which is translatable everywhere, is a certain tenacity that you learn to adopt in the course of research. You accept the fact that failure is part of the process and you learn to push through that to keep going, to try different angles and different perspectives on your research project until you come to some sort of result. This process translates everywhere.

In terms of what was most important for me, it was predominantly what I learned in physics. So, you can ask, “Okay, what does it mean to be a physicist?” It’s all sorts of elements. You have the huge quantitative foundation that you need to build up, that’s both in the language of physics and, in my case, computation. Computers have now become a huge element, a huge tool for what it is that we can explore from a theoretical point of view. If you’re an experimentalist, I imagine you have the same type of foundational buildup in terms of experimental techniques. Then, also learning to become a scientist in terms of collaboration. How do you form collaborations, and then how do you structure research projects? Those are also things that I had the opportunity to learn how to do as a graduate student, and they translate incredibly well into what I do professionally.

Matt: I think that some people who spend many years in small academic research groups may have trouble adjusting when they are dropped into pretty large organizations like MITRE or Schlumberger. It sounds like maybe you didn’t have too much of a culture shock, but it seems like a lot of people might.

Edlyn: I can imagine that might be true. For context, my graduate group had six graduate students and maybe three post-docs at Harvard. When I worked at Schlumberger the first summer, this is before oil started to decline, the company was 130,000 people. The next summer when I came back, I think it had downsized to about 90,000 because of cuts due to the fall of oil prices, but still, I mean, 90,000. That’s just enormous. MITRE is comparatively small, with about 8,000 people. Yes, I could potentially see that coming as a culture shock transitioning. For myself, I think the right approach is being open and talking to other researchers, and other people in the company. That could come naturally depending on your personality, or be a skill you need to learn and develop. Also, coming in with curiosity is important. I think that something which can happen in graduate school is you learn to become super-specialized and hyper-focused on your problem to the exclusion of all else.

If you lose that curiosity for what else is happening, it can limit you. For example, why not be curious about how the organization runs its operations, or how the organization maintain relationships with clients or with sponsors? From a research perspective, you don’t need to understand those things in order to do physics, but they are key in order to understand the essence of the company. What’s happening from an organizational point of view is something which you should tap into. That’s what allowed me to transition easily, being curious and talking to people across the organization.

Matt: Yes. I do get the sense that you might be a little on the extrovert side of our physics continuum, which is probably a good thing.

Edlyn: [Laughs] Possibly, yes.

Matt: I would actually amplify what you said. Understanding the organization is not only a good idea, and helps you fit in a new environment, I think that, especially in private industry, it’s really vital in the long term to understand the business. That’s because, as an employee, you’re part of the business. Ultimately, you’re going to have to understand how to fit into the overall business. This is a foreign concept, I think, when you come out of academia where things are not really structured that way.

Edlyn: Right. That’s certainly true.

Matt: Just a couple more questions. You’re a year or two out from finishing graduate school. You’re at MITRE. Sounds like you’re enjoying it. How do you see your career evolving down the road? Do you have any vision or preconceived plan?

Edlyn: That’s very difficult. I think it calls to mind statistics about asking people where they’ll be in seven years, and then coming back seven years later and seeing how many of them were correct. It’s very difficult for me to say. I really enjoy where I am now, and so one possible trajectory forward is staying long term here. I don’t know. The world is a big place, and there are many very interesting places to work. It’s essentially about where the best opportunities are. What guides me in terms of principles are working with interesting people on interesting projects in an environment which supports research, and supports that type of innovation which drives creativity. As long as I find those things in my work environment, then I’m at an equilibrium stage. If things start to shift, then you have a transition. Those principles are something which I can see projecting forward and I’ll always be looking for in my career.

Matt: Well, that’s the way of the world. Things change and we need to adapt.

Edlyn: Right. Exactly.

Matt: There’s one last thing I always like to ask people. Looking back on your journey and thinking of the guys and gals still in undergrad, still in graduate school doing physics, is there one piece of golden career advice that you’d like to share with all of them?

Edlyn: Yes. I would say the most important thing is to have confidence in yourself. I think that a lot of students potentially hold themselves back because they don’t feel that they’re capable of accomplishing something. They won’t engage with other researchers or other research areas, because they don’t have the confidence to think that they’re able to do that. That ends up restricting you, so I would say always, always have faith in yourself and your capabilities, and carry that forward in everything you do. Something which I found often at Harvard and MIT is the imposter syndrome. Everyone there seems to be meandering about with imposter syndrome. This was a concept that was so foreign to me, but for some reason was so prevalent in that community. I would just say don’t doubt yourself. Have that confidence to go forward and pursue your passions no matter what.

Matt: That’s excellent advice. Thanks, Edlyn. I really appreciate you taking the time to share with me today. You have a great story, and I’m sure you have an absolutely fabulous career ahead of you.

Edlyn: Oh, well thank you.