Politics and Policy: Valerie Shen

by Linda Huang and Sophie Hansen for Silver Quest

After graduating from the Blair Magnet program, most students continue on their STEM journeys, pursuing majors and careers in science, math, or computer science. Some students, however, venture out into the humanities. This leap was the case for Blair Magnet alum Valerie Shen, ‘04, a prospective biology major turned congressional investigator who currently works in national security policy.

During her time at Blair, Shen’s favorite class was genetics. “I liked a lot of the genomes and the coding and ecological biology… and I had a lot of fun doing it,” Shen recalls. She initially planned to pursue a major in biology and a career in scientific research, but while at Pomona College, Shen decided to explore a different area of interest: political science. “I did want to go to a liberal arts college in part because I wanted a more well-rounded kind of experience and the opportunity to take philosophy and politics and all these other things,” she explains. While she enjoyed her STEM Magnet classes, she also “felt like [she] didn't really get to try the humanities.”

The summer following her freshman year of college, Shen interned for Chris Van Hollen, former Representative of Maryland’s 8th district. “That was kind of my first foray into politics. But then I kept doing it,” Shen thinks back. The next summer, she volunteered for the Martin O’Malley for Governor of Maryland Campaign and later worked on the 2008 Presidential campaign of Barack Obama. As she delved deeper into political science, Shen realized that she would rather work in the policy realm than in the scientific research field. “I realized that I’m just not built to work in a lab all day,” Shen remarks, reflecting on her senior research internship at the National Cancer Institute.

After graduating from Pomona, Shen moved back to D.C., where she attended Georgetown University Law Center. She served as a congressional investigator on Capitol Hill for eight years, playing a key role in several high-stakes investigations. Currently, Shen directs the think tank Third Way’s National Security Program. “The best part about it is just that I get to… have ideas for a living, right? You know, think about really big picture challenging problems and… based on my experience, get to say I think this is the best path forward and then… talking to all kinds of people who are in a position to make that happen,” Shen explains fondly.

Within Third Way’s National Security Program, Shen is currently focusing her work on the strategic competition between the U.S. and China in the technological space. “So it’s thinking about national security in this sort of big picture, power competition,” she describes, “which sounds a little you know, hawkish, but ultimately, I think it comes down to what kind of world do you want to live in with what kind of rules rather what kind of rules do you want to live under?”

Although Shen did not continue on a STEM-oriented path, she still greatly appreciates the impact of the Blair Magnet program. “So much of what Blair really taught me was these foundational analytical skills that were really useful, you know, no matter the field, just like [the] clarity of logic and thinking and understanding,” Shen explains. “Once a Magnet, always a Magnet, thinking in those terms. In law, politics, communication, all of those things.”

While at Blair, Shen involved herself in a collection of extracurriculars; she was captain of the tennis team, captain of the physics team, and a member of Model UN. She recalls her most involved and favorite activity while reflecting on the most memorable aspect of Blair – STEM Arts Night, formerly Magnet Arts Night. The memories of practicing the Friends parody musical with her friends in her basement flooded back.

In her leisure time as an adult, Shen has taken up baking and cocktail mixology. She also spends time outdoors on walks and hikes with her “pandemic puppy,” and loves to travel. “It’s a hobby but yeah, I love traveling,” Shen says. “I mean…the best part about national security is getting to travel.”

Shen’s overall advice for current Blair Magnet students is to explore diverse academic interests, and not to feel limited to any one field in particular. “There’s still a lot of time, a lot of things to explore. A lot of these skill sets that you've learned at Blair are definitely transferable and give you advantages in other fields as well,” Shen notes. ​​”You are a lot more adaptable than you might think you are. So definitely take the time to explore a bunch of different things that might fit you.”