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Founder of Project Bridge, Daniel Pham, on turning passions into careers

Daniel Pham: Associate Director at the Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy & Founder of Project Bridge

When Daniel Pham was a third-year Neurosciences PhD student at Johns Hopkins University, his partner asked him an innocuous question which would change the course of his career: “what do you work on again?”  

That evening Daniel realized that he was unable to communicate even fundamental concepts about the brain.  If he couldn’t explain the most basic underpinnings of his thesis work to his loved ones, how would he convey the importance of his findings to policymakers and to the general public? 

If it doesn’t exist, build it.

He started an organization called Project Bridge, which aims to foster public interest in scientific research by improving scientists’ communication skills and increasing interactions between universities and their surrounding communities.  It started as a small project which organized “science cafes” and invited members of the public to attend seminars on campus. “Now it’s actually grown into one of the bigger student groups at Hopkins,” according to Daniel. Project Bridge sponsors dozens of public events every year in Baltimore and has opened a new chapter in Denver.  

Many graduate students don’t have the time or mental bandwidth to start a scientific outreach organization, and the majority lack the expertise to do so.  However, this wasn’t Daniel’s first experience managing a large organization or participating in an advocacy group. As an undergraduate at UCLA, Daniel ran the Vietnamese Student Union, an organization with around 200 members, while simultaneously working in a laboratory and taking a full course load.  In the year after he graduated he became involved in LA Gay and Lesbian Center‘s effort to repeal California Proposition 8, a project he pursued in addition to his full-time job as a lab technician. Daniel suggests that students who are interested in careers outside of science should find ways to sample employment experiences outside of the lab, especially if they align with their passions.  “If you are interested in doing something then just try it,” he says. “If it’s not available to you then build it. See if it’s for you.”

Life After Grad School

After defending his dissertation, Daniel moved to the Washington, DC area to lobby Congress and various agencies in support of scientific research, first as a Science Policy Fellow at Research!America and then as the Public Affairs Manager for the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB).  While he loved his work at ASBMB, Daniel decided to move on to a new challenge this past fall. He is now the Associate Director of the Milken Institute’s Center for Strategic Philanthropy, which leverages charitable contributions such that they can make the largest possible difference. “One of the biggest draws of this job,” says Daniel, “is that philanthropy can move so much quicker than the federal government.”

If you have a plan, you should just shred it. You can get paid to do the things you love.

Daniel Pham

At the end of the interview, Daniel offers some parting advice to younger scientists: “Speaking as someone who’s essentially in his third career, making plans only goes so far and can actually hinder you from seeing the other opportunities that are out there.  If you have a plan, you should just shred it. You can get paid to do the things you love.”

Daniel’s Favorite Books

Once a Scientist is made possible by support from our listeners! Each week, we ask our interviewee to tell us about their favorite books. If any of these reads catch your eye, you can support the show by using the links below to buy a copy for yourself!

Notes for this episode were written by Sam Asinof.

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