Dr. Shawn Chen, Office of Science, Practical Science for the Future of Clean Energy

03.14.24 | 5 min read | Text by Zoë Brouns

This series of interviews spotlights scientists working across the country to implement the Department of Energy’s massive efforts to transition the country to clean energy, and improve equity and address climate injustice along the way. The Federation’s clean energy workforce report discusses the challenges and opportunities associated with ramping up this dynamic, in-demand workforce. These interviews have been edited for length and do not necessarily reflect the views of the DOE.

With a PhD in materials science, a postdoc position at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and a stint as a AAAS Fellow, Dr. Shawn Chen has had a range of roles in the research community. Now at DOE as a career civil service member, he seeks to combine his technical skills with his passion for public service – to build the foundation for the next generation of clean energy technologies. 

Marrying Public Service and Science

Chen’s interest in engineering and materials science started while he was getting his undergraduate degree at UC San Diego. He was chosen to join Dr. Shirley Meng’s research team and started studying how to build stronger, better, and longer lasting batteries. This experience encouraged him to pursue a PhD, and he went on to study how to produce polymer films and materials – and figure out how to make films that use less energy.

It’s important to him that all his research connects back to energy in some way. Dr. Chen grew up in countries where energy was front of mind for his communities. “I grew up in Taiwan and spent two years in Malawi, and you really understand how important energy is. In Taiwan there was a special focus on conserving energy as much as possible. In Malawi, there would be days you wouldn’t have power. Growing up, that was something that was always on the mind.”

But it wasn’t just science that sparked his interest. With family members who had served in the military and a college degree that was funded in part by grants, Dr. Chen has always felt pulled to give back. “I wouldn’t have my education if it weren’t for the support of the country. What better way to do something to pay it back than to join public service?” As a grad student at Northwestern, Dr. Chen balanced his degree work with service in the graduate student government, negotiating on behalf of graduate student workers for better healthcare and working conditions.

Federal Service

With that outlook, the federal government seemed like a natural fit for him. After finishing his PhD, Dr. Chen took a postdoctoral position at the National Institute for Standards and Technology, where he continued his work on polymer films. His first foray into federal service allowed him to conduct research key to energy issues: studying how polymeric films could be used as membranes for fuel cells – for batteries and other energy technology, as well as for water treatment.  

Looking for even more of a policy focus in his work, Dr. Chen applied to the AAAS Fellowship, during which he interviewed at several different agencies. But the office that most spoke to him was the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. “What really resonated with me was this mission to keep America at the forefront of science and discovery and innovation…the fundamentals of science.” He got the fellowship, and recently converted to a permanent employee. Now he helps forward that same mission by overseeing and executing the office’s research funding and supporting fellow scientists in making progress on new technologies. 

He credits the AAAS Fellowship for giving him the opportunity. “It opened a door for me…without the fellowship, it would be very challenging for someone early in my career to be where I am now. I got a front row seat to how [policy] works behind the scenes.”  

The importance of research and development to fighting climate change is under-appreciated, in Dr. Chen’s opinion. “It’s very important to have that foundation. If we don’t have the scientific know-how, how can we innovate? You can’t just be throwing darts at a wall and hope it sticks.”

Because of that, effective and responsible stewardship of DOE’s research funding is one of the Office of Basic Energy Sciences’s core mandates. Dr. Chen plays a key role: reading applications, assigning reviewers, and making sure that projects align with national clean energy goals. Many of these projects “really address some of the climate challenges that we’re facing,” Dr. Chen says. Overseeing these projects and awards is his proudest accomplishment so far. His office played a major role in funding 29 projects with 264 million dollars that study large scale energy storage centers – directly supporting the Long Duration Storage Earth Shot. “The applications were top notch, the reviewers were excellent – and I think these awards will really make a significant change in the decades to come. I’m proud to say I’m a part of that effort.” 

Building a Stronger Science Talent Pipeline 

It’s not just funding the research – Dr. Chen is helping to bring younger scientists into the fold. DOE’s RENEW program – or Reaching a New Energy Workforce focuses on providing funding opportunities to minority serving institutions and non-R1 research institutions, places that have historically been unrepresented in the Office of Science portfolios. The program’s focus is on training and mentorship. DOE staff spend weeks with participants to engage them and expose them to the research process at the agency. They can create pathways into careers – not only in federal service, but into basic science research.

“Creating that opportunity for people that might not have even heard about clean energy, engineering, or STEM fields is really important. It’s an important piece of building the next generation – not just the technologies, but the people that will do this research.” 

Science in the Community

Dr. Chen sees his role as a public servant as going beyond just his day job. He feels a responsibility, not only to serve, support the development of new technologies, and forward key scientific research – but to engage his community in conversation about the importance of DOE’s work. 

“A lot of the people I interact with [outside of my work] don’t have a lot of interactions with government employees or scientists. Just putting a face to the names that they hear can help change their view of those people and educate them – tell them that we’re passionate about climate and energy. It’s important to meet people, make a friend, and talk about these things.”

There can be a lot of misunderstandings and questions about clean energy projects and what their impacts will be on communities. Dr. Chen believes it’s necessary for long-term buy-in, to keep strengthening our science communication and outreach efforts. 

In both his personal and professional lives, Dr. Chen continues to be inspired to give back and make the world a better place for those that come after him. “I think it’s important to fight for the people in the next generation. If we can make it better for the people that come after us, then we’ve had some positive impact.”