Career Conversations: Julia Jackson Mackenzie ’03 & Matthew Mackenzie ’03
St. Olaf College alumni and married couple Julia Jackson Mackenzie ‘03 and Matthew Mackenzie ‘03 are currently working in Washington, DC. Julia directs international affairs for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Matt has worked with the House Agriculture Committee Majority and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Group.
As part of the Career Conversations series, which highlights the paths Oles take after college, Julia and Matt sat down for a conversation with Piper Center Associate Director of Alumni Career Services Jenele Grassle.
To get things started, what is your favorite memory from your time on the Hill?
Matt: Meeting and falling in love with Julia and making life-long friends.
Julia: What comes to mind when I think of St. Olaf are walks to and from the library and dorms at dusk or later at night in the winter — the unique quiet of that time of day and season, especially when there was snow on the ground. At some point in my first year I realized I had good friends, favorite places, and activities…I had created an independent life for myself, which is what college is all about! Also: what Matt said!
You have both had fascinating careers in Washington, DC. Tell us about your current roles.
Matt: Until recently, I was Senior Counsel to the House Agriculture Committee Majority. In that role, I served Chairman Collin Peterson and the rest of the Committee’s Democratic members by helping them craft legislative language, conduct oversight hearings, and navigate the parliamentary rules of the U.S. House of Representatives. I recently started a new job at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Group’s Washington, DC office.
Julia: I direct international affairs for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), an organization that works in three broad ways — as a premier scientific publisher (the Science family of journals), as a scientific membership society (over 120,000 individual members worldwide), and as a non-profit running programs that either directly serve the sciences or help to ensure that science serves society in a variety of ways. In my role, I focus on our relationships with like-minded global partners and ensure that the impact of our work is global. I also focus on where we can learn from partners abroad and where we need to form new partnerships.
Your path to these roles is inspiring! Tell us a bit about your journey. What personal or career experiences did you have prior to your current role that influenced your vocational path?
Matt: St. Olaf helped me get my foot in the door on Capitol Hill. Because a beloved Ole worked in the office of Representative Oberstar, they took a chance on me and I tried not to disappoint. From there I knew I wanted to go to law school, and so Julia and I applied widely and decided on Chicago because we both wanted to experience life in a big city. After three years working as a lawyer in Chicago, Julia found an opportunity to come back to DC, and I was able to connect with some of the friends I made during my first stint on the Hill to find my way back.
Julia: St. Olaf solidified and expanded a love for the sciences that started in high school. Ted Johnson introduced me to the field of immunology in such an inspiring and effective way that I pursued a post-baccalaureate position at the National Institutes of Health in an immunology lab right after college. I then went on to graduate school at Northwestern University where I did a combination of basic biomedical research (microbiology and immunology) and public health research, getting a PhD and an MPH.
By the end of graduate school, I knew that I was interested in taking a break from bench research, where the scope of your work is really focused. I became a AAAS Science and Technology Fellow, a program that places PhD-level scientists directly in government for one-to two-year terms. It was an opportunity to apply my scientific background in a new way and learn about policy in an immersive way. I loved it! I was placed in a fellowship at the U.S. Department of State, where I worked on a global HIV/AIDS program called PEPFAR, and I stayed on past the fellowship.
It was incredibly formative and solidified my interest in both global health and policy. When AAAS was looking for a director of international relations, I jumped at the opportunity to return to a broader application of the sciences while still maintaining a focus on global affairs.
What skills do you utilize most frequently in your professional life, and how have you honed or developed those skills?
Matt: Reading and listening closely, thinking critically, and producing a clear written product are the skills I use the most, all of which were developed and nurtured at St. Olaf. My first job after law school was as a law clerk in a busy Cook County courtroom that I was able to treat as my own private writer’s workshop, writing the first draft of over 120 opinions with personalized feedback from a kind and thorough mentor. That was a stroke of luck.
Julia: Reading and writing! More specifically, reading critically, and communicating clearly — orally and in writing — and understanding my audience. The liberal arts education St. Olaf provided was critical for developing these core skill sets, which I’ve used in every job.
What do you see as a current need or challenge in your industry/career?
Matt: I will leave the challenges of American politics for others to answer, but a challenge on the Hill is the difficulty of attracting and retaining a diverse workforce. We are doing better than we have, but we have a long way to go to make sure the people staffing members better reflect the country as a whole.
Julia: If science is really to serve society as best it can, scientists need to be in dialogue with their communities. And it needs to be a real dialogue — listening and talking — as opposed to a lecture from the ivory tower.
What gives you hope in your field?
Matt: The bright young people who keep coming to the Hill and public service with open minds and a desire to help others.
Julia: The same — young people who are full of energy and fresh perspectives.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job? How do you navigate that challenge?
Matt: The biggest challenge is that no two problems are the same, and so there’s not a specific routine to rely on in response, but that’s also what makes it fun.
Julia: Also the range — AAAS is a generalized scientific society, and so the scientific focus is incredibly broad. My position is focused globally, and the world is, of course, also a big place. Making judgement calls about how to focus our work can be a challenge.
You have both done some very interesting work. What are you most proud of?
Matt: I have formed many lasting memories in my time on the Hill, from my first substantive interactions with longtime Minnesota Representative Jim Oberstar (attending a meeting with a visiting delegation from Haiti where I witnessed Jim transition from English to French to the native Haitian dialect in the span of a few sentences) to drafting the language for the new program to support dairy farmers in the most recent Farm Bill. But my favorite memories are the smaller moments of support when a colleague or friend showed me kindness during a stressful or difficult time, when I watched a mentee succeed at finding a new job or learning a new subject, and when our daughters spend time with me at the office, coloring at my desk or playing with their toys underneath it.
Julia: The relationships I’ve formed. With mentors, bosses, colleagues, peers, and mentees. I’m also proud of my family — Matt and our girls — and that Matt and I have both, at times, said we could not do something in our professional careers because it would be asking too much of our family. It’s really hard to know that you’re getting that balance right, but Matt and I talk about it and keep the conversation going. I have mixed feelings about work that has, for the last decade, had me traveling the world because at times it is really hard and inconvenient to be away. But I am proud that when my daughter Lillian first started pretending that she was going on trips with her stuffed animals they were usually going to Africa (at the time, my State Department job had me traveling mostly to Zambia, Botswana, and South Africa). I hope my work will inspire my daughters to travel far and wide as they get older.
We know that relationships are important for personal and professional growth. How do you build and maintain your network?
Matt: Building a robust professional network is a critical part of working on Capitol Hill. The best way I’ve found to do that is to show up, work hard, be kind, and take the high road. Over time, the people you work with become your network. When you aren’t actively working with them — follow up and stay connected as best you can.
Julia: I misunderstood the importance of networking when I was first setting out after graduate school. I thought it meant I had to go to happy hours and do speed-dating-for-your-career type events. And I didn’t have time for all that with two young daughters and a full time job. With time I’ve come to see it, as Matt described above: your network grows as you interact with more people through work and demonstrate that you’re easy to work with and produce high quality work.
What is the best career advice you have ever received?
Matt: From the House Parliamentarian, Thomas Wickam, in his ornate office: “What makes a good Hill staffer? The three Ps: Policy (know the policy inside and out), Process (understanding the rules of the legislative process is the key to using it effectively), and People (knowing the personalities involved in any issue from the staff level to outside stakeholders to members themselves and what is driving them is a critical part of doing the job well).”
Julia: Hmmm…hard to top Matt’s answer. A grad school mentor of mine once said to me, “The cream always rises,” and I’ve thought of that in times when I’ve been frustrated by either my position or workload. I’ve used it as a reminder to hunker down, do good work, and trust that it will be enough to get me to the next step.
What do you wish you could tell your 22-year-old self?
Matt: You can’t plan out your career path step by step, even though you want to. It would be better to start with something interesting to you, and when you get there show up, work hard, be kind, take the high road, and see where it takes you.
Julia: Honestly, relax and have more fun. The crystal ball that shows your future is not coming. So trust that a combination of the relationships in your life and hard work will equal good things!
If you’d like to read more stories from our Career Conversations series, check out our Alumni Career Services program.
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