A case to focus a career in STEM towards public service

How to focus a STEM career towards public service

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, MIT ’94, was keynote speaker on Day 3 of the MOSTEC 2020 Virtual Final Symposium. He shared his journey as a STEM professional with more than 20 years in public service, including elected positions at the city and state level, and involvement in the U.S. Senate and national organizations, and called scholars to use their STEM backgrounds for the benefit of their communities.

Going into politics was the last thing Alex Padilla thought he would do when he was growing up in California. Politics news wasn’t great, and the term ‘politician’ had a negative connotation. But when he graduated from college in 1994 with a degree in mechanical engineering, it was a tough economic time and the aerospace industry was contracting. That same year, California was considering a measure for the ballot that would make immigrant children ineligible for public services like healthcare and education.

As the son of immigrants from Mexico, the measure would directly impact his family, and community in the north east end of the San Fernando Valley. “I realized that as cynical as I might have been about politics and government, I had no choice but to get involved if I didn’t want my family and communities like mine to be a political target,” he told MOSTEC 2020 scholars.

Secretary Padilla started organizing and registering voters, and trying to get more people from the community out to the polls. He volunteered on campaigns, which led to managing legislative campaigns, an opportunity to work for the U.S. Senate, and then to run for office. “Here I am 20+ years later still trying to make a difference.”


The need for STEAM in public service

When Secretary Padilla decided to go into politics, his motivation was to do good and to use his technical background to help others. Over the years he has found most people in public office are trying to do good, but very few have technical backgrounds. This has allowed him to carve a niche working on policies that are related to technology. “The engineering background doesn’t make me an expert but gives me the perspective to ask the right questions of policy makers, and that has been valuable,” he said.

And, there is an increasing appreciation and realization from policy makers who do not have Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) backgrounds to integrate a more technical and human-centered perspective into policy making, he said. “If you think about the biggest policy issues and challenges, we are not going to make significant progress without a lot of innovation by scientists and engineers,” he argued. And this innovation will require a variety of considerations to implement it correctly. Cleaner sources of energy, genome research, personalized medicine, and even broadband access issues, are all issues that underscore the need for STEAM backgrounds in politics, he said.

Professionals with STEAM backgrounds can make a difference in many ways, not only by running for office, said Secretary Padilla. STEAM professionals can serve as staff members or advisors to elected officials, or contribute in advisory committees at the local, state or federal level. “There are advisory committees on different topics that can use the valuable perspective of scientists and engineers to tackle the questions at hand …  So, there’s a lot of opportunity to weigh in and make meaningful impact.”


If you’re thinking about it, just do it

Secretary Padilla’s advice for students interested in public service is to start by identifying what motivates you. Whether it is education, healthcare, gun safety, police use of force, climate, or the need for comprehensive immigration reform. “There are a lot of things to be very passionate about so it may be helpful to pick one to help find a starting point,” he said.

From there, it helps to think about what level of government feels appealing – federal, state, county, city, or even a school board or a neighborhood watch. And to keep in mind that the end goal is to influence change. “It’s a matter of picking where you want to make your impact or how you want to help and serve others.”

Secretary Padilla admits politics can be overwhelming or intimidating at times, particularly for young people of color, but he suggests using that as motivation to get involved and change the status quo. “Being the only young person and the only person of color, and the only one with a degree in STEM at some of those tables can make you wonder whether you really belong there, or what are you doing there,” he acknowledged. “But this is why our voices are important: we bring unique experiences and sets of knowledge into decision making that impacts everybody. So, if you’re thinking about it, don’t be intimidated, you probably have a lot more to offer than you realize, and sometimes you just have to jump in the pool with both feet.”


‘Redefining Possible’ in public service

Secretary Padilla often turns to his life journey to remind himself that it is possible to achieve more than he allowed himself to imagine. “My parents were immigrants from Mexico. For 40 years my dad was a short order cook, he flipped pancakes and scrambled eggs for a living. For the same 40 years my mom cleaned houses,” he said. “But that modest household had a good work ethic and a lot of faith.” Today, he and his two siblings have successful careers in public service. “So don’t limit yourselves – think big and when you think you are thinking big, think bigger.”

When he remembers his path from high school to college and throughout his career, Secretary Padilla recognizes moments where he could have been more audacious and bolder in his decisions. “If you ever stop to ask yourself whether this is the place you need to be, the answer is probably ‘this is exactly the place for you,’ because our voice and our perspective haven’t been there traditionally, and it needs to be, and that’s the opportunity and responsibility you have.”