At a very young age, aspiring to one day win the Nobel Prize, she had big plans to discover a solvent for diamonds that would allow her to crystallize the world's biggest gem (Listen here for more on the diamond story.)
Born in Romania, Irina Pala is possibly one of the only scientific fellows that has a Ph.D. in chemistry and a background as a cross country truck driver. Although she hasn’t discovered how to make diamonds the way she envisioned as a child she spends her time now contributing to the advancement of Naval relevant science and technology research as a senior policy analyst in the Office of Naval Research.
Irina loves to sing, hunt for mushrooms, and have picnics in the backyard with her son.
Learn more about our conversation with Irina in the interview below.
1. WHAT IS YOUR CURRENT ROLE AT AVIAN AND HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN WITH US?
I am the Senior Policy Analyst supporting the Basic and Early Applied Research Portfolio at the Office of Naval Research Code 03 (ONR Code 03). I’ve been in this role as an AVIAN employee for the past two years.
As the Senior Policy Analyst, I make sure that the $700M a year that comprises my portfolio is strategically distributed and aligned with guidance from the Department of Defense, U.S. Congress, and ONR specific requirements.
I also work to make sure we have a communication strategy for what basic research is. Messaging maps is what we are trying to work on. From ‘elevator’ pitches to more expanded messaging and details supporting what we’re working on. We want our people to be able to speak the language first and have the right messages. The goal of this is to defend our portfolio choices and inform those in higher leadership on the thoughtfulness we put in the process and the benefits of it.
2. WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST IMPACTFUL MOMENT IN YOUR CAREER THUS FAR?
This happened before I joined ONR Code 03. This is definitely when I represented the United States in an international S&T negotiation in Pakistan in 2015. The whole experience was on another level. Wow. I was only a fellow at the time, and it was unbelievable to be given that responsibility and trust. And I emerged without creating an international crisis, so it ended up good. During that discussion, I WAS the U.S., and speaking on its behalf on things of mutual benefit was just incredible. This is even more impactful considering where I come from (being born in Romania, and then coming over and being naturalized here [The United States of America]).
3. WHAT MAKES YOU MOST EXCITED TO SUPPORT THE OFFICE OF NAVAL RESEARCH?
I strongly believe in ONR’s mission of funding science to advance knowledge and at the same time keep the peace by enabling technological advances for our armed forces. It gives my work more purpose.
4. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE PART ABOUT WORKING FOR AVIAN?
AVIAN is really employee-centric. When I was applying to AVIAN and I looked on the website it spoke to me. The lightheartedness spoke to my persona. I feel like I’m heard, there is respect for employees. In paying us well, respecting us, and helping us take care of our customers.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS:
1. NAME ONE PERSON WHO MOTIVATES YOU.
I am kind of against this type of question because I don’t have just one person. Depending on the day and situation, I use motivation as I need it. I can say that my husband is a huge motivator and support daily, but overall, I can learn from everyone. I was a truck driver, I was a housekeeper, and I have a deep respect for everyone who is a real person, a professional at what they are doing. Like I said before, you can learn from everyone and get better. You don’t have to be a millionaire or a famous person. I remember a woman I used to clean rooms with and how proud she was of being good at her job and how she was using her toothbrush to get things extra clean. That was her going above and beyond and she had everyone’s respect for that.
2. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE “PERK” ABOUT WORKING FOR AVIAN?
The AVIAN team is always there. Elise Smith in particular for me. She always takes my calls and provides solutions to everything. I feel very thankful to work at AVIAN.
3. WHAT WAS YOUR CHILDHOOD DREAM JOB?
Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I wanted to be a teacher. I still want to do that, so maybe someday I will part-time teach.
If someone looks at my resume, it looks like I thought things through, but I didn’t. When I applied for my fellowship everyone asked about the science and communication part of it but in the end, they wanted to know about the truck driving thing. In my bio, there was a blurb where I could add that in, and I debated not adding it but it’s part of me and in the end, it's going to set me apart a little bit. Everyone who applied had a Ph.D. and had written papers, but not everyone drove a truck. They were itching to ask me about that. They said, “How did truck driving feature in your career planning. It had to have been planned.” I think truck driving may have gotten me more in my career than my Ph.D. did!
I didn’t know I would end up in the U.S. doing these things. Not at all, but it happened somehow out of a combination of serendipity, hard work, and grit.
4. IF YOU COULD HAVE DINNER WITH ANY CELEBRITY, WHO WOULD IT BE AND WHY?
The same thing as before, I don’t have just one, but since you’re asking for one it would have to be Samantha Power, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Pulitzer prize winner. I read her biography recently and she is a mother and has [had] such a high-power job. As a mother and someone in a very impactful position, I would want to know, ‘Is she real?’ like she is in the book? I’d like to hear her thoughts on the impact she’s made on foreign policy and how she did it all as a mom of two kids.