Kristi Bradford is in the International Science and Technology Policy master’s program at the Elliott School, concentrating in Space Strategy and Management. She started her career in research and development of scientific instrumentation. Her work has been deployed to the South Pole, biomedical research labs, sub-orbital balloon trajectories, and Earth orbit. She has co-authored over a dozen publications on scientific measurement systems and received numerous awards for her work, including from the American Astronomical Society, Science Foundation Arizona, and Forbes Magazine. She holds a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics, earth and planetary science from Harvard University and a master’s degree in exploration systems design (systems engineering) from Arizona State University. She has worked full time at Columbia University, Planetary Resources, and The Aerospace Corporation as well as conducted part-time research at NASA Ames, California Institute of Technology, and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. She currently works as a Field Technologist at In-Q-Tel.
What inspired you to select your program/concentration at the Elliott School?
I spent many years navigating the professional world of science and engineering, and as a whole quite enjoyed that career track. However, after several years in the field, I realized that the human dimensions of science and technology, and not the science and technology itself, play an outsized role in determining success and failure. In order to help facilitate more successes, I wanted to better understand the non-technical drivers of science and technology. While I had dabbled in policy and international affairs at various points throughout my career, I knew I needed to do more than just dabble. I needed to gain a completely new perspective. I had known about the Elliott School’s Space Policy Institute for some time and felt that it was the right place to help me cultivate the completely new perspective I was seeking.
What has been your most challenging academic experience at the Elliott School and how did you overcome it?
Since joining the Elliott School, there have been moments that have challenged how I think about the world and each one made me realize I was harboring underlying assumptions about people, motivations, and institutions. One of the most impactful moments for me was during a mock negotiation exercise. The class was divided into several teams to participate in a multi-lateral negotiation. For my team, our best-case scenario was to derail the negotiation entirely. However, if we were not successful at derailing the negotiation, we needed to at least protect certain interests in any potential agreement. Thus, my teammates and I were negotiating the terms of an agreement just like every other team, but we were also purposefully sowing as much chaos as possible without revealing our true motivation. We were ultimately successful in derailing the negotiation without any team every realizing that was our true motivation all along. Coming from an engineering background I am very used to trusting those around me and working together to solve a common problem. While this assumption of trust and problem-solving works well in engineering, it is not a universally valid assumption. This negotiation exercise made me realize that its critical not to assume that everyone shares your interests and wants to see the problem solved. I realized that I cannot always take the engineering mindset of jumping straight into solving the problem. I need to get comfortable with taking a step back and thinking about the motivations, interests, and values of the people and organizations involved.
What resources or strategies have proven to be most helpful in helping you reach career success?
The strategy I have found most effective is to always be on the lookout for growth opportunities. The parts of my career that have been most fulfilling have been when I took a risk and pursued a role that scared me, that was well outside my comfort zone. This growth opportunity focused approach can also be very useful for identifying good mentors and avoiding toxic situations. The mentors I want are those that help me to identify, and encourage me to pursue, a growth opportunity and who are willing to be a source of advice as I navigate the new experience. Furthermore, this mentality makes it easier to identify people and organizations that are not worth my time, because they either discourage, do not offer, or do not understand the value of growth opportunities to my personal and professional development. I know it is time for a new experience when I am no longer learning, and I always try to have the next opportunity lined up when I reach that point.
Now that you’re a graduate student, what do you wish you knew during the graduate application process?
At the time I was applying for the program, I was working as a space systems engineer with the thought that a policy degree would make me a better systems engineer. However, a lot has changed for me since I applied. Most notably, I switched jobs and now work in venture capital rather than systems engineering. The work experience I have gained in venture capital combined with the knowledge I’ve gained in the Elliott School program, has opened up a whole new slew of career possibilities for me. With so many new doors open, I am struggling to decide whether I want to return to systems engineering, dive deeper into venture capital, or pursue something totally new. I am not sure I could have prepared myself for this situation while I was applying, because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. However, in retrospect, I should have thought more seriously about whether I was ready to leave systems engineering altogether.
If you could bring any food from abroad to D.C., what would you bring?
In 2017 on a trip to Hong Kong, I discovered, quite possibly, my favorite restaurant in the world. It is a tea and dim sum restaurant located in Hong Kong Park called Lock Cha. They only made vegetarian dim sum and the menu changes daily, but every dish was amazing. On that one trip, I went to this restaurant 5 or 6 times, because it was so phenomenal. In addition to the amazing dim sum, they had the most impressive tea list I had ever seen. Plus, when they brought out the tea, they taught the proper way to brew each variety. As a tea aficionado, I greatly appreciated that extra touch. Obviously, both dim sum and tea are available in D.C., but that doesn’t stop me from getting cravings for Lock Cha. Given the state of the world right now, I don’t know when I will make it back, but I luckily still have some tea I bought the last time I was there, so hopefully that can hold me over until my next opportunity to visit Hong Kong.
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The #WeAreElliott profile series is managed by the Elliott School Office of Graduate Admissions and highlights current students to answer common questions posed by prospective, incoming, and current students. For more information on this series or to submit questions, e-mail the Office of Graduate Admissions at email@example.com.
The views expressed by students profiled do not necessarily represent those of organizations they work for, are affiliated with, or the Elliott School of International Affairs.