Member Profile: Kaitlin Browman

Solutions incubator Science for America (SfA) was established in May 2022 to address five urgent challenges: the climate and energy crisis; medicine and public health; STEM equity and education; leadership and responsibility in critical technologies; and new models to support research and innovation.

The organization is funded by an alliance of nine leading philanthropic organizations, which collectively have donated $30 million to support activities for its first two years.

Dr. Kaitlin Browman, who serves as Chief Operating Officer, looks back on Science for America’s first year and its first white paper, “New Opportunities for Fusion Power,” published on May 12, 2023, which lays out approaches for fusion power with the potential to speed progress, decrease cost, and simplify engineering challenges.

You hold a Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience and have over 20 years of experience in scientific research, strategic operations, and senior administration. How did you become involved in SfA? 

As I progressed in my career, I found that my day job was science and my night job was making things better operationally by defining better processes. I led operations for the Discovery organization at the biopharma firm AbbVie in 2013, and I layered an MBA on top of my Ph.D. to help me develop the higher-level strategic thinking necessary for this role within scientifically minded organizations. I became interested in the nonprofit sector and moved to Broad Institute in 2020. Broad Institute is associated with MIT and Harvard and was founded by Eric Lander, the Chief Scientist of SfA. It was natural for me to join him in this endeavor when he kicked it off last year.

What were your first thoughts when Lander told you about his concept and intentions for SfA? 

I thought Eric was about the only person in the world who could pull this incredibly nebulous and ambitious idea off–that’s a sweet spot that he can navigate better than anyone I’ve met. Eric had previously defined the five areas he wanted to pursue and had been working on this for about a month before he approached me in April. I knew it would be something I would enjoy. I like building things and the messiness of the startup world, figuring out payroll and other tactical elements for a scientific organization–and I love how Eric thinks and does things.

SfA is bi-coastal, based between Boston and the Bay Area, where you work from CANOPY Menlo Park. What are the benefits of being located here?

We believe we should go where there’s the best talent, and Eric’s initial vision was to have a hub in Cambridge and in the Bay Area. There are a number of people in climate energy anchored here;  Stanford emphasizes climate initiatives. For some of our other pillars, STEM and health, more of our collaborators are located in Cambridge as it’s the East Coast biopharma hub–the Kendall Square neighborhood in the MIT region is unprecedented in terms of the innovation between startups and academia. 

How does your office at CANOPY Menlo Park support you in your operations?

Currently, our operations director and I represent SfA’s Bay Area team. We have a seven-person Private Office that we leased last November, even though there are just two of us, as we weren’t sure how our staffing would play out–we were considering launching a Fellows Program with Stanford, for example. The space here is gorgeous, there’s a dog park in the new Springline development (where CANOPY is located), and everybody we’ve met here is just so nice–the space had a warm, inviting, friendly feel even before it opened. It’s also been really fun to meet other strong women here and share best practices and knowledge.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I love being in a different time zone. My dog wakes me early, and I can catch up with everything happening on the east coast. Either I continue to work from home or come to CANOPY and focus on the nuts and bolts of my job–what we need to do to keep the lights on or continue to optimize our processes. I support our pillars equally, although my role in the first year was establishing everything–securing our Section 501(c)(3) status and finding a PEO to pay payroll. Now, my tasks tend to be a little more targeted depending on who we’re hiring and what we need to do within the emphasis of the time allotted under Science for America.

What elements of SfA are you most excited about?

All of our projects are game-changers, or we wouldn’t be working on them. Still, the one that I’m personally the most passionate about and think will be the biggest challenge is STEM; there’s such a need for raising awareness and creating opportunities in that space. Many people have had difficulty gaining traction, including some of our donors; I believe this is one area in which we can be successful and make a difference.

We also just published our first white paper in the climate energy area on fusion power, which was a huge deal for us. The response has been incredibly positive: a reporter associated with Boston Globe Media wrote a story on it, and we’ve seen many more signups on LinkedIn. The best outcome would be if somebody external takes this white paper and builds their entity on its described elements.

What have been some of the challenges of establishing this type of organization?

It was crazy complicated trying to get insurance as nobody knew how to insure us. If you’re a truck company, companies know how to insure a truck, but not a solutions incubator that spans many different sectors. Beyond that, everything we do at SfA is challenging by design. In the case of fusion, for example, all this knowledge is out there–there have been many recent advances, such as experimental results at the National Ignition Facility (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories)–but it’s incredibly expensive to deploy in a useful way. During one of the most fascinating conversations I’ve participated in during my career, our strategic advisors said that our challenge is to make fusion cheaper than the price of coal. Our approach was to pull together people working on various aspects of this field and see what we could make happen by collaborating. 

What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned in your career?

Don’t be afraid to be fired. My scientific hero is Jane Goodall, and when I look at the amazing things she’s accomplished, it stems from a lack of fear. I’ve learned to be confident and not overthink things, and even if I make a mistake while believing I’m doing the right thing, it’s often better to do something than not to act.

What’s a skill that everybody should master?

Being efficient with your time.

How about a favorite podcast you’d recommend to anybody?

One I enjoyed the most was Eric Landers’s podcast for the Broad. I shouldn’t say that, as I am obviously biased, but it’s true. A lot of the TED Talks are very inspirational.

How do you define success? 

I probably would have given a different answer when I was younger, but I define success currently as meeting or exceeding your goals, whatever they are–every person needs to determine that themselves, whether it’s going skydiving or something in your work life. I feel the most successful and motivated when I’ve done something meaningful which has challenged me. 

What are your favorite things to do in the San Francisco Bay Area?

I have two dogs, and we have a lot of fun going to the ocean, particularly Half Moon Bay. I love the hikes here. One of my favorites is Windy Hill, 20 minutes from CANOPY Menlo Park.

SfA invites input on its report “New Opportunities for Fusion Power” and plans to publish a final version later in 2023. Please send comments to: fusion@scienceforamerica.org.