Jake Jordan is NTI’s senior director for Global Biological Policy and Programs. Previously, he served as a chief scientist at Booz Allen Hamilton, where he worked as the senior science and technology advisor to the Office Director and Deputy Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Biological Technologies Office (BTO). From 2009-2014, Jordan worked as subject matter expert supporting research and development programs in the DARPA Microsystems Technology Office (MTO) and Defense Sciences Office (DSO). Jordan holds a Ph.D. and M.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Virginia and a B.E. in Chemical Engineering from Vanderbilt University. He sat down with NTI's Caitlyn Collett for the latest in Atomic Pulse's "Get to Know NTI" series.
So, you arrived in your role at NTI last year after supporting the Department of Defense as a consultant. What inspired you to make this switch from government consulting to non-profit work?
That's a great question. In my previous job I worked on biotechnology research and development (R&D) projects in support of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
I really appreciated the gap analysis that went into this work. You fundamentally ask the question of how do I get from A to B? But there are layers under that: what are the really hard problems that I need to solve? What expertise do we need to bring together to generate new ideas that can solve the problem? I really enjoyed those pieces. I had done that sort of work for over nine years, always focusing on the particular needs of the Department of Defense.
Over time I started to see other spaces where creative solutions could have an immediate and more global impact. It was that space at the intersection of security, health, and international relations that began to excite me more and I started looking for a new opportunity that would allow me to work at this nexus.
What really drew me to NTI was exactly that: an ability to work across these areas, expanding beyond the technical gap analysis and beginning to apply my skills to address global policy gaps and technology implementation challenges. Even if the most innovative technology in the world exists to solve a particular challenge, there still need to be ways to implement and disseminate the technology to maximize global good. At the same time though, this has to be done in a way that minimizes risks associated with that technology. Improving global health through international cooperation, but not at the expense of security. It was an exciting opportunity that I couldn’t resist.
Well, we’re grateful that you’re on our team. What are you currently working on with NTI?
I spend most of my time right now working to advance NTI’s Biosecurity Innovation and Risk Reduction Initiative. I really enjoy this initiative because it looks at the vital advances at the forefront of biotechnology R&D and seeks to maximize innovations in biosecurity that can prevent misuse and ultimately save lives.
Within this initiative, we acknowledge the idea that biotechnology advances will benefit society, but at the same time, we recognize there are risks associated with these advances.
We're thinking about how those risks have outpaced the ability of governments to provide effective oversight. We want to look at what can be done as a technical community, such as scientific leaders, global technology networks, professional societies, etc., to develop creative actions to more quickly identify and reduce these risks. These are solutions created outside of a government mandate to speed implementation by those developing and using the technologies, but we want them to also inform governments that are actively considering governance challenges associated with technology advances.
I think most importantly, this initiative helps strike a balance between innovation and security. It’s a fun and impactful place for someone like me who thinks about R&D, but also comes from a security or defense background.
That's a great intersection of your interests. I see that you got your Masters and Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering. So, what got you interested in the role of biological threats?
Biological threats weren’t an obvious choice for me. My dark secret that I probably shouldn't share, but will, is I never took a biology class in college.
It’s true. I took AP Bio in high school, but nothing in college. I’m perhaps showing my age, but this was before chemical engineering departments regularly started including biology and biotechnology as a core component of their programs. It wasn't until a research project I did the summer before my senior year in college that I did anything with a direct relationship to biology or biological systems. In that case, we were trying to immobilize a virus on patterned surfaces to use as a bacterial sensor. So, I started learning about biology and got exposed to some interesting research ideas that were taking an engineering approach to solve biological problems. Then, in graduate school, I dove in, pursuing work on protein engineering and protein purification. I was set to take a job in the biotech industry after graduation but a graduate school classmate introduced me to an opportunity to support biotechnology R&D within the Department of Defense. This role grew my understanding of the biological threat space, and spurred interest in the technologies necessary to counter them.
So, it’s almost like your entire career course was influenced by that single project.
Yes, one summer project, 10 weeks and it led me down a completely different path.
So, I picked biology studies back up in grad school. I took biochemistry and biophysics classes. But, no formal training.
Don’t worry, I don’t think they’ll take your world saving license away. You’re doing a great job. When you're not saving the world from impending epidemics, what is your favorite way to spend the day?
Living in D.C., a good day has to include a trip to a museum, right? I have two small children, both of whom love the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space annex to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum where they have the SR-71 and the space shuttle. They’re also big fans of the National Building Museum, so you might find us there building and destroying a few foam buildings. They’re like miniature Godzillas. Then, maybe if I'm lucky, I would squeeze in a run in the morning with a little bit of time to myself. I really enjoy running, but I don't get nearly enough time to do it. For me, it's a time to clear my mind, without having two or three or five voices chiming in my ear – these are literal people, not just voices in my head – and really be free to let my mind wander.
I’m quite jealous, I don’t think I’ve ever found joy in running. My next question is, if you could give everyone in the world a piece of advice today and they would all be listening, what would it be?
So, this is a little sappy, but I think it really holds true. It's probably something that builds on what I learned from either my mother or my grandmother as a child. It’s just this: “Treat other people the way you want to be treated.” I think many of the problems, many of the challenges, on a local or global scale, can and should be approached with this mindset.
Say you have an idea or want to put forward a concept for discussion. If you put yourself in someone else's shoes and rationally think through how they might perceive the idea, you can find the areas of potential disagreement, address them early on, and arrive at something that’s more likely to be more universally accepted. This isn’t magic, it’s just taking a minute to look beyond yourself and consider alternative points of view. The same goes for a new idea that’s presented by someone else. Rather than saying all the reasons it won’t work, we should acknowledge the potential benefit, and consider the effort that went into developing the idea. So that's my little piece of advice. It’s simple but it’s true.
I think everyone could learn from that. Sending good out into the world will often bring good back to you. Speaking of which, my final question is this: if you had just won the lottery what would you do with the money?
Well, the easy answer would be to fund all the wonderful ideas that our program has. A large donation to NTI | bio!
I think I would use the money to target and resolve socioeconomic disparities and the problems associated with them. Again, it goes back to treating others the way you want to be treated! Access to a large sum of money really buys your freedom - time - to think creatively about solutions and integrate ideas from disparate areas. I would keep working on solving global challenges, continuing the work that we're doing here every day, and try to bring additional voices into that conversation, especially people from different sectors that maybe don't traditionally think about biosecurity. I think having their voices and intellect thinking about that problem would be exceptionally valuable, and hopefully a little of my lottery winnings would be enough to peak their interest.
That’s wonderful. The world would certainly be a better place if you won the next lottery, so I’m rooting for you. Is there anything else that NTI doesn’t know about you that you’d like to share?
Wow, I don't think I have anything else. I already told you my deepest, darkest secret.
Your secret is safe with me.