An interview with Professional in Residence Jaime Yassif

Jaime Yassif is the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s vice president for Global Biological Policy and Programs and this month’s Professional in Residence at QB3-Berkeley. Yassif spoke to graduate student Sita Chandrasekaran ahead of her January 25th visit to campus. Bioscience trainees are welcome to register for Yassif’s events.

Sita Chandrasekaran: Could you tell us about your role as vice president of Global Biological Policy and Programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI)?

Jaime Yassif: NTI is a global security organization and our mission is to reduce nuclear and biological threats that imperil humanity. As the Vice President for Global Biological Policy and Programs at NTI, I lead the team that’s responsible for the biosecurity portion of that mission, and we work to build international capacity to prevent catastrophic biological events. We have a number of strategic priorities and key initiatives in our programmatic work to achieve that larger goal. I lead the strategic direction setting for the program and manage a team of about a dozen people that’s doing the work.

Headshot of Jaime Yassif.
Jaime Yassif is this month’s Professional in Residence. Photo courtesy of Jaime Yassif.

SC: How would you relate your policy and threat assessment work at a nonprofit to the training you received as a scientist?

JY: First of all, scientific technical training is excellent preparation for the work we do. A huge part of our strategic priorities in our biosecurity work is thinking about governance of the tools of modern bioscience and biotechnology so we can capture all the potential societal benefits while guarding against downside risks—including the potential for accidental or deliberate misuse that could have catastrophic consequences globally. A lot of that work is quite technical. You need to understand biology at a deep level and keep up with rapid advances in science and technology in adjacent fields–and understand how they’re converging—to develop effective guardrails that reduce the risk of deliberate or accidental misuse. So, the fact that I have biophysics training and I have experience in engaging with the literature is extremely valuable in my day-to-day work. People with scientific and technical training, either in the life sciences or adjacent fields such as engineering or computer science, have highly valuable skills that are extremely useful for this context. When you’re conducting academic research, you formulate a hypothesis, and you then set about designing a set of experiments to explore that hypothesis and try to validate or nullify it. The underlying goal is the pursuit of knowledge and truth, which is very noble and important. In our work at NTI, we’re trying to do is to create change in the world and to reduce catastrophic biological risks in a way that’s sustainable over time. And that involves developing policy and technical solutions, working at the interface between science, technology, and international security using a cross-disciplinary approach.

There’s a lot of creative thinking, concept development and thinking outside the box. And then there’s a lot of work to build relationships with key stakeholders in the international community to get buy-in on our proposed approaches and solutions. To do this, we work with the academic research community, with industry, with government policymakers, and with representatives of international organizations. The mission is to drive change in the world, but the underlying skillset of scientific inquiry, testing hypotheses, and trying to come up with innovative ideas—that is embedded in the work. So the skills that you acquire in grad school can definitely be applied in this context.

SC: How did you find this career path?

JY: I studied biology as an undergraduate, and I also spent a lot of time studying political science. I was interested in foreign policy, and I was interested in molecular biology. At the time, I had zero concept that those two interests could be connected. The discovery was accidental: I was finishing up my undergraduate biology degree at Swarthmore College, and I was trying figure out my next steps.

I found a really interesting job opening at the Federation of American Scientists as a research assistant, I applied for it, and I was lucky enough to get it. I didn’t actually start in biosecurity. I started in nuclear security, but it was essentially a science and international security position, where I was using my technical skills in the context of foreign policy. And it was perfect. It had the impact and the international reach that felt meaningful and important. But it also a really intellectually rewarding job because it enabled me to engage on technical aspects of the work in the context of nuclear security. I felt extremely lucky that I had such a positive experience so early in my career, and I was pretty sure that I wanted to stick with this line of work. Over time, I decided that I wanted to be the biosecurity equivalent of the technical nuclear security work that I was doing.

So doing work at the interface of science and technology and security in the context of biosecurity is where my academic strengths lie. And at the time, nuclear security was a pretty mature field, and biosecurity was a much younger field, and it was the early 2000s and synthetic biology was just coming to the fore. But it was just very clear that biotechnology was going to be increasingly important, so I oriented myself in that direction.

SC: What advice would you give to a trainee who is interested in biosecurity?

JY: If they’re interested in exploring this field, I think they should try the experiment of getting a fellowship or getting an internship and trying it out for three to six months and seeing if they like it, or trying an AAAS fellowship or a presidential management fellowship to see what it’s like to work in the US government for a year or two. There are a lot of different fellowships and internship opportunities that can give you–especially if you land in a good organization–a feel for what the work is like, so you can test it out. The other advice I would offer is that you don’t necessarily need to wait until you graduate to gain some experience in the biosecurity field. For example, at NTI, we run a Next Generation for Biosecurity competition. We bring young professionals and students to international biosecurity meetings on biosecurity, such as the Biological Weapons Convention, to give people an onramp.

There’s the Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity fellowship that’s run by the Center for Health Security, and I think you can in principle qualify for that if you’re still a grad student. There’s also the Union of Concerned Scientists Summer Symposium on Science and World affairs. The Pacific Forum has a Young Leaders program where you can learn about Asia-Pacific regional security issues. The National Academy of Sciences also has an internship program, which is another experience you can gain before you graduate. My number one piece of advice when you are starting out is to just try stuff!

Dr. Jaime Yassif has 20 years of experience working at the interface of science, technology, public health, and international security within government and civil society. Yassif currently serves as NTI vice president for Global Biological Policy and Programs, where she oversees the organization’s work to reduce catastrophic biological risks, strengthen biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, and drive progress in advancing global health security. Yassif previously served as a Program Officer at Open Philanthropy, where she led the Biosecurity and Pandemic Preparedness initiative, recommending and managing approximately $40 million in biosecurity grants, which rebuilt the field and supported work in several key areas. Prior to this, she served as a Science and Technology Policy Advisor at the U.S. Department of Defense and worked on the Global Health Security Agenda at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dr. Yassif holds a Biophysics Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, an MA in Science and Security from the King’s College London War Studies Department, and a BA in Biology from Swarthmore College. 

Sita Chandrasekaran is a bioengineering PhD student in the join UCSF-UC Berkeley program and a 2021 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow.