Alumnae

The Science of a Career

By Cordelia Mendez ’11
Particle astrophysics may not be a class at Spence, but it was at 22 East 91st Street that Dr. Jean Cottam Allen ’89 first fell in love with the science.

“I suspect that I wouldn’t have gone into physics if I hadn’t gone through the Spence system,” Jean says. “Spence let you do anything you were interested in and let you run with it.”

As program director at the National Science Foundation, Jean is responsible for overseeing experiments into dark matter and explores all aspects of the science through the Physics Frontiers Centers, which supports the advancement of physics at universities.

While Jean’s current role has her conducting research and working within the federal government, her career has had a diverse trajectory. After graduating from Harvard University in just three years—a feat she credits Spence with helping her accomplish—Jean taught middle school and high school math and science at the John Burroughs School in St. Louis before attending graduate school at Columbia University.

She then became immersed in research on astrophysics and continued on to a post at NASA. There she worked on a satellite launch in Japan. After moving to a more managerial role, Jean joined the Bush and Obama administrations in the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

“I look back at everything and feel quite grateful for all the opportunities,” she says. “Being at the White House at that time was another extraordinary experience.”

Having worn many hats, Jean still attributes her time behind the Red Doors as a major factor in her success today.

“I don’t know that I would have had the confidence or been supported the same way as a high school student in the late ’80s if I hadn’t been at an all-girls school, and particularly at Spence,” Jean says.
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    • Jean Cottam Allen ’89