How a Science Policy Project Manager Succeeded by Adapting
Story: Alex Haederle | Photography: Melissa Blum | Production: Langston Payne
You’ve probably seen her on Ripple Effect’s Facebook or LinkedIn pages, attending NIH events, speaking with graduate students, or dominating trivia. That’s no accident—Ishita Das is everywhere. A bright Cell Biology PhD who has grown into an expert project manager on our Science Policy team, Ishita has worn many hats during her career and that’s no accident, either. In this interview, she spoke with us about adaptability and the value of self-knowledge, what it takes to be a great project manager, and how to be your own best advocate.
“That’s complicated,” Ishita responds, followed by a big laugh.
The question seemed straightforward enough: Where are you from?
Yet for someone who’s lived in Georgia, by way of Texas, only to end up in Washington DC—by way of Michigan, after a North Carolina stint—indeed the answer isn’t so simple. Ishita has lived in many places and has had to adapt and assimilate everywhere she’s been. Whether as a graduate student researcher in a University of Michigan PhD program or as a project manager of science policy programs, she’s learned a lot along her journey, which began at an early age.
“I was always attracted to science and biology,” Ishita explains, warmly mentioning her cousin, a scientist and role model who inspired Ishita to play with K’nex as a kid and lean into those left-brained interests as an adult. “Going to college, I knew I liked research,” she explains, recalling how her time working with cancer patient advocacy organizations helped narrow her focus on biomedical research. Ishita didn’t want to fit into a typical box, though. “I didn’t want to work in a lab, or a hospital, or in the biotech/pharmaceutical industry. I wanted to have a broader impact and be able to see the results of biomedical research actually help people.” That honesty with herself and recognizing what she didn’t want steered her towards a new route: science policy.
Ishita graduated from her PhD program in 2015 and started working with Ripple Effect the next summer after moving to DC. She applied for a job and began as a part-time analyst, supporting a public comment analysis project. She performed well on the project, made an immediate impact, and gained the trust of Ripple leadership. Despite that strong start, though, she was still part-time. “It was a rough economy, and I was still looking for other opportunities like science policy fellowships as my next step.” That’s when Ripple offered her a full-time position as a policy analyst in their Science Policy division—a role that would give her security, stability, and a path to grow. That path, however, wouldn’t end with that “Policy Analyst” title.
Over the next year, Ishita did great. When a project required she learn HTML—knowledge nowhere to be found in cellular biology textbooks—she taught herself the language on the spot. She earned new responsibilities and began managing relationships with her NIH clients, as well as project details like budgets, timelines, and deliverables. This was a shift away from pure policy analysis, though; Ishita felt her title wasn’t representative of what she was doing, and that her value extended beyond that of just a policy analyst. So, she took action.
“I reached out to my cousin,” she recalls. “And she gave me advice about pushing for what you’re worth. It’s not greedy to ask for what you’re worth. You have a life, you want to live it, and you value yourself. So, be your own best advocate.” That advice, coming from a personal role model and someone who had traveled the path before, resonated with Ishita. She pushed for a new title—Science Policy Project Manager—and after discussions with her manager and leadership, she got what she wanted.
“I see myself as a project manager—for NIH, primarily—which involves handling our clients, understanding their needs, defining project timelines and budgets, and supervising staff,” as Ishita describes her current day-to-day job. She helps federal agencies implement policies that affect how biomedical research and healthcare are implemented, true to that personal mission she recognized back during college. To be a great project manager, Ishita explains, demands meticulous organization and attention to nitty-gritty details like misplaced commas, as well as big-picture strategic thinking and planning. “It’s knowing how to clearly communicate goals, roles and responsibilities, and anticipating not just two steps ahead, but five.”
One may think that marrying science with softer skills would prove challenging for a trained cell biologist. On the contrary, it’s the constant learning that gives Ishita energy. She took a course on strategic planning, where she learned tactics for managing up with clients and bosses—embracing their mission and goals, honoring their time, under-promising and over-delivering, and more. Patience and never taking things personally have kept her on an even keel and keenly effective in her role.
“A client recently sat me down, and I wasn’t exactly sure why,” Ishita begins ominously, “But she commended me, saying ‘You’re an incredible project manager; you figured out how to manage me, and I’m difficult to deal with, so, kudos to you.’ That was validating.” She beams after this anecdote, appreciating how the work she’s put into growing and learning has paid off. (And why not smile? We should all feel proud when we make others successful and are validated in return.)
Growing into a great project manager hasn’t been all breezy success stories and rose-colored Ray-Bans, though. Despite her collaborative, team-player nature—she isn’t motivated by comparing herself to the accomplishments of others, and prefers to seek advice rather than blindly compete—Ishita likes controlling the details. Delegation is a challenge that she has struggled with but learned from, and she offers practical advice on it: “As you work with people, try to identify some smaller things that you can give away to others. When they do well, you trust them, and eventually you will start naturally separating the things you need to hold onto from the things you don’t.”
To be a lifelong learner, Ishita praises the value of knowing the latest trends— “Not just for your job, but for your life interests. Things change fast, and you have to be learning and growing.” That’s why she reads both Harvard Business Review and Science magazine: to stay on top of the newest management practices, as well as advancements in science and medical research. (She also praises Radiolab and Reply All, her favorite podcasts.)
So, after successfully transitioning from academic research and bench science to managing science policy projects for major federal clients, what motivates Ishita to keep growing in her career? The joy of growing and adapting, and that comes back to her passion for wanting to make an impact. “I entered science policy to make sure that science policies improve human health,” Ishita reiterates. “I’m doing that from one perspective, and I want experiences from other perspectives.”
Ishita isn’t done moving. Her next career step remains unknown, but one thing is clear: she’ll be her own best advocate for getting there.
Ishita loves to share advice with scientific graduates and give back to the community however she can. Connect with her on LinkedIn, follow her on Twitter, or drop her an email at IDas@RippleEffect.com.
As an outsider, its not a balancing act between just 2 things(as described in the article: between academic/technical v/s Project/client management practices).
It is rather 3 things:
a> The technology and academic domain that you belong to. (and desperately are trying to keep up with)
b> The policy making impact that you dreamed of making to the world (and all the global socio-economic factors that resist change)
c> Clients and business as usual from a Project manager perspective.
I am sure, the first 2 points are probably taken-for-granted in companies like RE. …’just another thing’ that everyone in the organisation handles like a charm. But, IMO, that’s probably the two points that collide in an individuals head and can not be simply ‘boxed out’ after office hours!
So essentially, Ishita is a person caught in the difficult task of balancing clients(for Ripple Effect) while being in a ‘tug-of-war’ between the head (Academics) and the heart (social impact through policy).
…And wear that gorgeous smile while being at it!!
(P.S. I know very little about the subject but have been impacted dearly in the recent past by the gaps in policy v/s science, hence thought appreciate the work being done by individuals to make a difference)
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