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Andrea Belz

Andrea Belz

Vice Dean of Transformative Initiatives, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California Founding Director, USC Center for Research in Space Technologies, Research Director, USC Information Sciences Institute, and Professor of Practice, Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering

By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project

November 28, 2023

DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Tuesday, November 28th, 2023. I am delighted to be here with Dr. Andrea Belz. Andrea, it is so nice to be with you. Thank you so much for joining me.

ANDREA BELZ: Thank you for the opportunity.

ZIERLER: Andrea, to start, I know this is going to be complicated—tell me, please, all of your titles and institutional affiliations.

BELZ: My current titles are that I am a Research Director at the University of Southern California Information Sciences Institute and a Professor of Practice in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. I am the Founding Director of the Center for Research in Space Technologies, CREST. I am the Director of Translational Strategy for the California Defense Ready Electronics and Microdevices Superhub, known as California DREAMS. I am the founder and co-leader of a lab called the Management of Innovation, Entrepreneurial Research, and Venture Analysis group, known as MINERVA. I serve as President-Elect of the IEEE Technology and Engineering Management Society. And the role that takes most of my time is Vice Dean of Transformative Initiatives in the Viterbi School of Engineering.

ZIERLER: This is all at the University of Southern California?

BELZ: Correct, except for the IEEE leadership role. Those are all the roles I have today, but I had many along the way.

ZIERLER: Let's start first with engineering practice. What does the practice convey? Why not just Professor of Engineering?

BELZ: I am on a different track. It conveys that I actually did engineering for many years before I came to USC, and that my expertise is systems engineering.

ZIERLER: Transformative Initiatives, where does that title come from? What is the program that that's attached to?

BELZ: [laughs] That is attached to the vision of our dean, Yannis Yortsos, who is also a Caltech graduate. I have worked with Yannis for a long time now. Dean Yortsos recruited me to invent this role when I returned from the National Science Foundation, or NSF, a year ago. The portfolio is large-scale initiatives that cross the typical disciplines of the engineering school. For instance, I helped lead the proposal for, and now am on the leadership team of, California DREAMS. Because I spent many years working on government projects, I have developed a skill for acronyms! California DREAMS includes all the major research universities in Southern California, including Caltech, as well as many of the defense companies. Our mission is to accelerate the transition of semiconductor technologies from university labs into the defense industrial base. We won a 27 million dollar grant from the Department of Defense, DOD, in September of 2023. I also started CREST as the home of USC's activities related to space exploration and the use of space resources. Transformative Initiatives is the home for big ideas that link traditional units.

ZIERLER: The business school, how is that an asset for your research, for your career?

BELZ: I started at USC as a faculty member in the business school because I was interested in how technologies advance to commercialization and impact. That came out of my experience with technology startups and helping large companies identify promising new technologies. Many activities that lived in business schools ten years ago moved to engineering schools. I started in the business school but soon moved to engineering, where I was a better fit. I had a nonlinear career, to say the least.

ZIERLER: What about beyond USC, the boards that you sit on, the committees that you serve in L.A. and beyond? Tell me a little bit about some of your initiatives there.

BELZ: Today, I don't have as many extracurriculars as I once did, in part because I divested myself of most of them when I went into public service. I am still an active member of the Pasadena Angels, which is an investment group that focuses on startups, historically in Los Angeles but now more broadly since the pandemic. Through the Pasadena Angels, I served on the board of a Caltech spinoff called Ondax, serving as a Director until we ultimately sold the company to a large laser manufacturer. I have been affiliated with Golden Seeds, an investment group that focuses on women-led companies. Along the way, I did community service in support of my children's activities as they were growing up, because I think that's important.

ZIERLER: What is your interface with students? Do you teach undergraduates? Do you serve as a thesis advisor for grad students?

BELZ: I serve as a thesis advisor for grad students. I do not teach, currently, because of my administrative appointment. In the past I've taught undergraduates and graduates. I served on the Caltech faculty for a couple of years where I taught a mixed undergrad and graduate course on technology commercialization strategy.

ZIERLER: Obviously your career path defies pigeonholing, so let me start at least with your educational trajectory. Do you still consider yourself a physicist? Are you active at all in the world of physics?

BELZ: I am not publishing in physics journals, so—maybe I'm a physicist in recovery? It's a fabulous training but I don't work on projects in fundamental physics.

ZIERLER: What might be some sensibilities that you bring to your work that lean directly on your physics background?

BELZ: I'm always looking for a grand unified theory.

ZIERLER: [laughs]

BELZ: I like strategic frameworks that bring together and organize various concepts. Physics teaches you how to recognize the same problem over and over, and how to develop frameworks to think about them. A physics background, and especially in a complex data environment like elementary particle physics, teaches you how to ingest new data, rework your mindset, and develop a new mental model. I'm thinking of the discovery of the muon, which caused Rabi to say something like, "Who ordered that?"

ZIERLER: [laughs]

BELZ: That idea that you might find something that you didn't expect and you need to reorganize your framework is an appealing way to think about systems engineering as well.

ZIERLER: Nowadays, what would you consider yourself? Are you a systems engineer?

BELZ: I'm a systems engineer both by temperament and by profession. If you look at the people who go into systems engineering, certainly at a place like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory or JPL, they often come from fundamental science fields – physicists, chemists, astronomers. Systems engineers rotate through different disciplines and projects, learning about autonomy, software, and so on. We ask: What are the top-level requirements? What am I trying to achieve? Which pieces of the system have to work together to achieve this outcome? So, I think of myself as a systems engineer.

ZIERLER: Is there any formal training, or this is just engineering by osmosis, as regards to your career path?

BELZ: In terms of my own training as a systems engineer?


BELZ: It's probably primarily osmosis, but at a place like JPL, the concentration is very strong [laughs], so the kinetics are fast. Have I taken systems engineering courses? No. Probably the closest one I took was at Caltech, where Peter Goldreich taught a course called Order of Magnitude Physics. It was wonderful, with lessons like understanding from first principles why a tree branch bends but doesn't break. A final exam question was to explain a tea kettle design if it makes two tones when it whistles. Great questions like that force you to synthesize what you know. Systems engineering is a synthesizing discipline where the curriculum starts with fundamentals, and then moving toward building integrative skills.

ZIERLER: Where does the MBA fit in?

BELZ: When I was in the Pasadena Angels and learning about startups, I saw that the final voices of authority in investment groups are the folks who can read financial statements with great fluency. So, I decided I wanted to be one of those people. I took from Caltech this idea: Whatever you need, go teach yourself, go get it. That attitude drove this particular decision. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, they didn't offer minors, but the University Honors Program required another focus area sufficiently disconnected from your major. I took classes in political economics. My academic research today links econometrics and aerospace systems engineering – two fields that are typically not studied together.

ZIERLER: You mentioned Los Angeles in the context of being a hub. You're probably so well positioned to more broadly comment on what kind of hub. What kind of overlapping hubs is Los Angeles? Where is there opportunity for growth?

BELZ: People think L.A. is a big city because it takes so long to drive anywhere, but it's really a small town. Everybody knows each other. As a hub, obviously it has a long and distinguished history in entertainment and associated technologies. People forget that entertainment has critically accelerated technologies before. Hewlett and Packard sold their first oscillators to two customers – one was the Navy, and the second was The Disney Company for the Fantasia movie. So, entertainment has driven technology advancement and Los Angeles is at the tip of the spear. In addition to entertainment, obviously the aerospace industry has a strong footprint and presence in L.A., and so we are well positioned to have a leadership role nationally in defense technologies. We've seen in L.A. how it's cyclical. When I graduated with my PhD, it was the beginning of an upturn in the defense companies hiring scientists, when they had been flat for years because of the end of the Cold War. L.A. is well positioned for the changing national economy.

ZIERLER: What about biotechnology? We're sandwiched between San Diego and San Francisco, between UCLA, USC, Caltech, some great hospitals. Where is there opportunity there? What are you hearing in that regard?

BELZ: L.A. continues to be a mecca for biotech. When I got my first NSF grant for innovation education and ecosystem development, we said we would focus on two fields. One was aerospace and defense, and the second was healthcare systems and services. Even if manufacturing is expensive, we're ready to grow with precision health solutions and personalized health advances. San Diego develops pharmaceutical technologies, and Irvine is a great home for medical devices, while L.A. is a mix of all of these.

ZIERLER: We'll build this up in real time as we develop the narrative, but do you still have any affiliations with the NSF?

BELZ: No longer. I served as a Division Director and was on the leadership team for three years, and now am a friend and advocate, but the lines need to be very clear to preserve the integrity of the NSF merit review process and agency operations.

ZIERLER: I can't help but notice that most of that appointment overlapped with COVID. Were you physically in Washington? Did you work remotely for some of it?

BELZ: The first year, I was in Washington learning the job. Then the pandemic started, so I came back to California. In the third year, we launched the new Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships Directorate, known as TIP, which represented a major reorganization at NSF. I ran the division in the second and third years from my guest room in L.A.

ZIERLER: How did that experience help inform what you are now doing in your capacity as vice dean?

BELZ: Enormously! Once you understand what's happening behind the curtain, you frame proposals differently. It informed how I thought through the California DREAMS initiative and how to build a regional ecosystem for defense technologies. And I frame problems differently. When I was at NSF, I was charged, as everyone is, with thinking about geographical and regional inequities. We just had this conversation about the nature of L.A. and California, and my NSF experience helps me appreciate it even more. Now I think differently about how to generate national impact with the resources that I have available.

ZIERLER: One topic everyone is talking about nowadays—AI and machine learning—where are you on those issues? Where is it a research tool? Where's the hype? Where's the reality?

BELZ: Wow, there's so much happening on that front, and we still don't know what it will become, just like the internet. While I was at NSF, my division reorganized the digital technologies commercialization portfolio as we saw the dramatic growth of all the associated technologies, like AI, machine learning, natural language processing, high-performance computing, and so many more areas where the pace of discovery has exploded. If people had said 20 years ago, "The internet will displace the taxi industry," people would have laughed, but now we have Uber. Or consider Amazon. I just read that Amazon is now the leading logistics provider or delivery vendor in the United States, ahead of USPS, UPS, and FedEx. We do not know the new business models and the new society models that will emerge. We live in an interesting time, and we have to keep our eyes open. There's so much that we can't predict, like—everything.

ZIERLER: We're not sure what the future holds. Let's now go back to the past and establish some personal history for you. Is your family from Chile? Is that where you grew up?

BELZ: I grew up in the United States, but I am third-generation Chilean. My grandparents and my parents were born there. We came to the United States when I was a baby as the political situation in Chile was changing dramatically at that time.

ZIERLER: Do you know the origin story, where your family came from before they were in Chile?

BELZ: Yes. My great-grandparents left Russia, Lithuania, and Latvia at the time of the pogroms and went to Chile in search of opportunities, just like everywhere else that Jews landed.

ZIERLER: Was there a strong Jewish community, as far as you knew, in Chile?

BELZ: Those Jewish communities were launched in that era. I had a great-grandfather who was part of the first synagogue in Santiago. The Jewish communities in the South American capitals were formed in that time.

ZIERLER: But you have no memories? You left too young?

BELZ: Left too young, came to the United States, and grew up here.

ZIERLER: What was the opportunity in the United States? Did your parents have jobs here?

BELZ: No, they got jobs here. They were both doctors. An important element of settling in Chile was that if you could pass the exams, you could go to the university. So all four of my grandparents had advanced degrees, which is not common in people of that age. The ability to pursue an education – which is a core Jewish value - was central to my family story, so it was straightforward for me to think about pursuing an advanced degree.

ZIERLER: Obviously the political tumult in Chile in the early and mid 1970s was bad for everybody. Was it particularly bad for Jews?

BELZ: I don't know that it was particularly bad for Jews, but I think that every time there is political tumult, it's not good for Jews.

ZIERLER: Certainly. [laughs]

BELZ: Right? [laughs]

ZIERLER: That is a historical truism.

BELZ: Jews do not benefit from revolution. [laughs]

ZIERLER: That's right. That is true today. It was true then.

BELZ: Exactly. Nothing has changed.

ZIERLER: Where did your family land? Where did they end up?

BELZ: When I was a kid, we lived in Cincinnati. Then we moved around when I was in junior high school. I went to high school in suburban Maryland and then went to the University of Maryland at College Park.

ZIERLER: Growing up, were you always on the math and science side?

BELZ: Oh, yeah! [laughs] When I was a kid in Cincinnati, the girls on the playground said to me, "Boys are good at math, and girls are good at reading." I said, "What if you're good at both?"

ZIERLER: [laughs]

BELZ: They had no idea how to answer that question! [laughs] It was clear that I was way more interested in math than my friends and classmates were. We would play classroom-wide games, and after a couple of times, the teachers would stop allowing me to play because I would trounce everybody. The only person I know with a similar story is my older son, whose preschool teacher said [laughs], "We think your son is unusually good at math." I said, "He's four years old. How do you know?" "He is unusually interested in patterns." It turns out that they were right. This year, he is finishing his math degree in addition to a physics degree at UC Santa Cruz. It can be clear quite early. Except my son is much better at math than I was!

ZIERLER: [laughs] Going to UMD, were you specifically interested in physics, or that developed as a college student?

BELZ: No, when I was in high school. I took my first physics class in the ninth grade. The sensation that I had at the time was, "Oh, this is why we've been taking math all these years! This totally makes sense! This is great!" It was many years before I realized that most of my class did not react that way [laughs]. Then I went to Maryland and had the opportunity to major in physics and to work with wonderful professors in the research labs. I was just drinking it up.

ZIERLER: Besides being nearby, and the tuition is in-state, as a college student did you know and appreciate that UMD Physics is really a top-notch program?

BELZ: No. [laughs] At the time, they used to advise freshmen to retake high school math classes because college was so challenging and it was a new environment. I thought that was so silly and I refused to retake anything even though they warned me. I took my first semester exams and discovered that I was doing very well, and I realized that I could be successful if I stayed focused.

ZIERLER: Maryland has a huge Jewish community, student community. Were you involved in Hillel or Chabad or anything like that?

BELZ: I used to go to some of the Hillel events. I wasn't active, but there were Jewish students around me, so I didn't feel isolated.

ZIERLER: Who were some of the professors that you would have considered mentors or you became close with?

BELZ: My most impactful mentor was Phil Roos, who taught undergraduate quantum mechanics. I just loved his class. It must have been obvious. In March of that year, after class one day he said, "I would like to invite you to join our research group. We will go to Switzerland to run an experiment." I couldn't believe this offer! I had never been to Europe. But I wanted to play it cool, so I said, "Thank you, but I'll have to think about it." I went back to my apartment with my roommates, and I said, "Guess what! I've been invited to go to Switzerland!" But I wanted to answer in what I thought was a cool adult fashion, so after the next class, I said, "I've thought about your opportunity, and I might be interested in pursuing it." And he said, "Great, we've already submitted your name. We're ready to book your tickets." I thought, number one, I have no poker face [laughs], and number two, this is a great opportunity! I was always able to recognize opportunities.

Later, I realized I must have had a supplement to his NSF grant through a program called Research Experience for Undergraduates. It was gratifying to be at NSF 30 years later, because part of the vision behind those awards is that you motivate people to stay in science and pursue a higher degree. It worked! I'm so grateful to NSF and Phil. He was quite influential in my career development. I learned how to collaborate in a laboratory. You don't do things by yourself in a lab anymore. The mad scientist model doesn't hold.

ZIERLER: Was being near Washington, D.C. an asset for you as an undergraduate?

BELZ: It was an asset because I had fantastic professors. Ellen Williams strongly impacted me - I think she may have been the only woman on the Physics faculty at the time. She encouraged me to apply to Caltech, where she had been a graduate student. Fred Wellstood taught a great solid-state physics class that paid off for me when I joined the leadership of the California DREAMS project. I had many great professors and mentors.

ZIERLER: I'm hearing you loved the lab work. You loved math all the way back to middle school.

BELZ: All the way back to elementary school. My entire life, math was my favorite subject, no question.

ZIERLER: Did you toggle between experiment and theory? Could you have gone either way for graduate school?

BELZ: No, because the people who are good at theoretical physics are an order of magnitude better than I am. I was pretty good in the lab and was a tinkerer. I saved up to buy a Radio Shack circuit kit when I was in middle school. I took the same undergraduate chemistry sequence that the chemistry majors and the premeds take because I liked the lab work. That paid off later.

ZIERLER: Was the plan to go straight to grad school out of college?

BELZ: Yes. When I was a college freshman, I learned that you can get graduate school paid for. I was entranced by this idea. My plan was to apply to the top schools, and if I got accepted, then I would go, and if not, I would take a year, study organic chemistry, and apply to medical school. That was the backup plan. [laughs] Fortunately for the public, that did not occur! [laughs]

ZIERLER: Was that what your family was pulling for? Would they have liked to see you become a medical doctor?

BELZ: It's funny, I felt that my family's attitude was, "We wanted you to be good at math, but not quite this good." [laughs]

ZIERLER: [laughs]

BELZ: I was a little over the top, relative to what they were expecting.

ZIERLER: Where else besides Caltech did you apply?

BELZ: I applied to other great schools. But Phil Roos knew Bob McKeown at Caltech, and he had encouraged me. Bob became my thesis advisor, and it was a great match.

ZIERLER: Did you go visit initially? Was it an easy decision for you?

BELZ: Absolutely. The summer after my sophomore year of college, before I went to work with Phil Roos, I went to UC San Diego for a summer internship where I worked with Sally Ride. She was one of my childhood heroes. I did that the summer I was 19. I had never been to California before. [laughs] Once I had the opportunity to come to Caltech —game over. I was so excited to come.

ZIERLER: Did you know how small it was? Coming from a large public university, did you know how small Caltech was?

BELZ: When I visited in the recruiting trip, I met Laura Grego and Alexa Harter, who ended up being my classmates, and we walked around the entire campus. I couldn't believe that was possible. But at Maryland, I didn't have a typical state school experience for two reasons. Number one, I was a physics major. Very few people are kooky enough to be physics majors, so those classes are generally small. Second, I was in the University Honors Program, which offered small, seminar-style classes as alternatives to big lecture halls, so I only had a couple of large classes. I was used to small classes.

ZIERLER: How well prepared did you feel relative to your fellow students in your first grad classes?

BELZ: I spent the first year highly intimidated by my classmates. In retrospect, I was better prepared than I felt, but I studied very hard [laughs], which I had to do. But—it's Caltech. There are superstars in those classes. I took classical mechanics with John Preskill, and he said to the class one day, "How many of you have had differential topology?" Which I had never had. One person in the class raised his hand, and Professor Preskill said, "Good. I'll just do a quick review." [laughs] The person who raised his hand, Anton Kapustin, is now on the Caltech physics faculty.

ZIERLER: What was McKeown working on when you connected?

BELZ: He was exploring how the quarks within neutrons and protons contribute to their larger-scale structure. In addition to leading the experimental design and the data interpretation, he guided building novel targets for the scattering experiments. He pioneered polarized gas targets. I worked on understanding how they behaved at low temperature, and on ways to measure the polarization without interfering with the experiment.

ZIERLER: Tell me about the lab. What did it look like, when you were a graduate student?

BELZ: The Kellogg Radiation Laboratory was originally funded by the Kellogg of the corn flakes, because he was interested in health. My first office was a large room on the first floor, and there was a big circular hole in the ceiling and a matching one on the floor, because the beam pipe came through that space. So they took out the beam pipe, put something down on the floor, and voila! - now it's a grad student office. The small accelerator where we tested the targets and the monitor was in the basement, and it was known as the Pelletron. It was like a 1960s-era control board that you might expect to see if you were going to the Moon, with switches and lights.

After my second year, Bob said, "In order to design anything, you have to know how equipment is built." I thought, "Well, that makes sense." He said, "You're going to spend some time in the machine shop." I was thrilled. I went to the machine shop, which was next to the laboratory. Jack, the machinist, was an older, grizzled guy. He had a belt buckle with a six-pointed star because he was a retired sheriff. I thought, "This is great! Let's turn on the equipment! Let's go!" The first lesson was about safety, and how to pull up my hair, and how to guard myself. We didn't turn on a single machine. I was so disappointed. I came in the next day. I said, "Let's go!" He said, "No, no. Today we're talking about measurement." He brought calipers and scales and rulers. I had never held calipers before and I liked the secret language, but I wanted to turn on the large machines.

On the third day, I was dejected, because I figured it would be another day of seeing equipment that I wouldn't be allowed to touch. And he said, "What are you waiting for? Come on!" [laughs] So I went to work with him and learned to build. I also spent a couple of weeks with our electronics technician, Jim, designing and building elementary circuits. We worked in a suite of rooms in the sub-basement of Kellogg Laboratory, and it was great training.

ZIERLER: Do you think that planted a seed for your later interest in engineering?

BELZ: Yes, but I learned much more about engineering at JPL.

ZIERLER: The terms nuclear physics and particle physics, were those terribly meaningful distinctions for nucleon research?

BELZ: Nuclear physics is lower energy than particle physics. We worked at the interface. The Department was organized that way with two separate groups. My thesis committee included professors from particle physics.

ZIERLER: What was the frontier of knowledge for nucleon research at that point? What were the big questions?

BELZ: A major question was called the "Proton Spin Crisis." Earlier experiments had found that the spin of the quarks within a nucleon, which is a proton or a neutron, does not add up to the nucleon's overall spin. If the quarks don't carry the spin, what does?

ZIERLER: All of the experimental work could be done locally? This didn't require going to a national lab, for example?

BELZ: No, I did most of my thesis research in Germany at the Deutsches Synchrotron.


BELZ: On campus we developed the target and the associated systems, but we ran the physics experiments at DESY.

ZIERLER: What were DESY's unique capabilities? Why was this something that you couldn't do in the U.S.?

BELZ: The Superconducting Super Collider was cancelled during my first year of graduate school, and I didn't appreciate at the time what that meant politically or in terms of the development of the field. DESY made it possible to do this kind of experiment at 27.5 giga-electron volts, GeV. At that time the only other option for this kind of physics, which requires a polarized electron beam to study nucleon spin, was Stanford. Today it's possible to study these effects at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, which Bob McKeown helped launch and where he was on the top leadership team for many years.

ZIERLER: What was Bob's style like as an advisor? Did you work closely together? Was he hands-on, hands-off?

BELZ: Bob was a fabulous advisor, and I am grateful to him. I worked closely with the postdocs on the target design and monitoring, but I worked directly with Bob on the analysis of the scattering data. He taught me to be fearless in tackling a new problem and just doing the math.

ZIERLER: Besides Bob, who else was on your committee?

BELZ: Brad Filippone. The two of them ran the nuclear physics effort together. Then Frank Porter from particle physics, and Mark Wise, who was a phenomenologist.

ZIERLER: Was it a good defense?

BELZ: I think so? I only had to do it once—

ZIERLER: [laughs]

BELZ: —so that was probably a good sign!

ZIERLER: Any questions that stand out in your memory? Anything that was challenging for you to explain?

BELZ: I remember the qualifying exam more clearly. A particle physics experiment works by chaining different detectors together, like a daisy chain. Some measure momentum precisely, or energy, or charge, and they each work on different physical principles. For my qualifying oral I particularly studied how transition radiation detectors, or TRDs, work, because they were least familiar to me. During the exam Frank Porter asked me to explain how TRDs work and he looked like he was ready for it to be a zinger. I felt so smug. I could mentally see the page in the Jackson electromagnetics book, so—it was as if I was just reading him that page. I was so relieved that I had studied hard. I knew how every piece of the system worked.

ZIERLER: The opportunity at JPL, did that come up even before you defended?

BELZ: It did. I had opportunities to continue in nuclear and particle physics, but I didn't want to pursue them. I had left graduate school for a year because I was sick, and so I wanted a postdoc that would not require as much traveling, because I was worried about my health and my priorities had changed. I networked through the Caltech community and learned that a group at JPL was studying astrobiology, developing methods to look for life on other planets, including using synchrotron experiments to validate instrument concepts. I thought, "Well, that sounds interesting." I connected with Ken Nealson, who was on the Caltech faculty at the time, and he offered me a postdoc position.

ZIERLER: The astrobiology work, was that connected to a mission, or that was in a directorate?

BELZ: It was in the fundamental science organization. The hope was to guide near-term Mars missions, but the real interest at the time, and still true today, was Mars Sample Return and learning from a returned sample. The model for exploring the experimental evidence to detect life on other planets is to study unusual chemistries of life on Earth. That work focuses on life in extreme environments.

ZIERLER: People were already talking about sample return, having only launched a rover a few years earlier?

BELZ: People started talking about sample return before Viking landed in 1976. In the 1990s, the discovery of the Allan Hills meteorite sparked a renaissance in thinking about sample return. At the time, the astrobiology efforts were focused on what was hoped to be a near-term sample return mission. That didn't happen.

ZIERLER: What was it like for you at JPL? Was it an exciting environment?

BELZ: I liked the interdisciplinary environment, but I was used to a culture of weekly group meetings where every student and postdoc stood up and presented their results on whatever they had been doing that week. Maybe it was just calibrating a detector or measuring the stability of a target. Whatever it was, you stood up, you presented, you got feedback, and it made you better. The JPL group was so large that everyone couldn't talk about their results weekly, which was disappointing. I struggled with the change of culture.

ZIERLER: You mentioned Mars. Was anybody talking about exoplanets at that point?

BELZ: People were talking about exoplanets but more often about other planetary bodies in our Solar System, like Titan and Europa. But Mars is so close, relatively speaking.

ZIERLER: Of course now we have the James Webb. Hopefully we'll have the ELT telescopes at some point. Was anybody talking about observational capabilities to look for astrobiology, to look for biosignatures, even technosignatures, on exoplanets that far back?

BELZ: Certainly people were talking about the Hubble data extensively, as well as data from the orbital assets at Mars. I saw improvements in the fidelity of the data and how hard JPL worked to tighten the landing ellipse, which is underappreciated today. When we land on Mars today, we know much more precisely where we will land and what to expect in the local geology. Those are major feats of engineering and science.

ZIERLER: Did the late 1990s high-profile Mars mission failures register with you?

BELZ: Absolutely, because they impacted subsequent funding cycles. The model of faster-better-cheaper did not survive the public appetite for risk, so there was a realignment of JPL's priorities. Many faculty members and certainly postdocs like me were strongly impacted. But that is the nature of sponsored research, that you are subject to the cyclical or fickle nature of funding priorities. It's hard to swim upstream. We still haven't done Mars Sample Return. The potential architectures have gotten more complicated and there are more mission stages envisioned.

ZIERLER: It's a big open question. Are you bullish that it will actually happen?

BELZ: Yes, one day, we will deliberately bring a piece of Mars back to Earth. More is possible with the decrease in launch costs. That's what's driving the new space economy. You have to schlep a lot to Mars in order to come back. You either have to schlep or make.

ZIERLER: [laughs]

BELZ: [laughs] Cheaper launch costs mean more shlepping is possible.

ZIERLER: If you're comfortable talking about it, you alluded to your illness. How did that change your outlook, your perspective, your priorities?

BELZ: My illness turned my entire value system upside down. Before I got sick, I was focused on accelerating through my PhD and pursuing a well-trod and traditional path with a postdoc and a faculty position. My sickness put a minus sign in front of that plan. I wanted to do things differently. I decided not to pursue a postdoc in nuclear physics, even though Bob had introduced me to his network, which is an important reason to have an influential advisor. But I wasn't interested anymore.

ZIERLER: Did you cut short the JPL postdoc?

BELZ: The group reorganized while I was a postdoc, and within a month, I found out I was pregnant and thought, "Looks like I'm on a different path." A close friend suggested that I consider consulting. I said, "I don't even know what that is." Very few of my friends pursued it at the time, and always with large established firms. My friend said, "Join me for a couple of meetings." So I did, and I thought, I can heckle scientists instead of doing science! That's interesting! At the time, I didn't realize that I was actually well suited for it. I set up a consulting practice and incorporated when I was eight months pregnant. After my son was born, I wanted flexibility in my work schedule. It was a different time, when people didn't ask for flexibility up front. This was just after the first dot-com boom, when people just started talking about startups routinely.

One of my first two clients was JPL. I met Jim Cutts at a Caltech alumni event. He was the Chief Technologist of Solar System Exploration at JPL and he hired me for the first project in what turned out to be a ten-year stretch. He taught me about space exploration but also about large science organizations. My second client was The Athenaeum Fund, a small venture fund investing in Caltech startups, and led by Caltech professor John Baldeschwieler. John's partner was Malcolm Cloyd, a successful businessman who taught me everything about starting and growing companies – which are quite different! I was always fortunate that mentors appeared when I needed them.

ZIERLER: When you started consulting, were you already on the path to wellness?

BELZ: Yes. I left graduate school while I was sick, got treated, came back to finish my thesis, then went on to my JPL postdoc and ultimately to consulting.

ZIERLER: Tell me about how your skills innately worked in consulting. You discovered this latent ability. What were you good at that you needed to be a consultant to figure out?

BELZ: It was weird, like discovering you're a superhero, thinking, "Look, I can shoot fire out of my hands!" "Oh! It seems that I'm good at consulting!" I am a very quick study, with a strong background in physics but also conversant in chemistry, so I could walk into almost any technology company or group and understand their key issues and why they were hard to solve. I discovered a knack for the human side of organizations, and the dynamics that often get in the way of great science and engineering.

ZIERLER: Did you ever think about attaching your consulting services to a larger agency, or you always wanted to keep it small and to be in charge?

BELZ: Over the years people tried to hire me into consulting groups or investment banks, but I enjoyed my autonomy. I appreciated the personal flexibility when my children were very young, so I grew on my own and hired people as I needed them.

ZIERLER: How many clients did you have at the biggest level for your consulting business? What was your biggest year?

BELZ: That's a funny question, because people would say, "You're a consultant so you're the boss," and I would tell them, "Well, each client thinks they're my only one." Also, consultants are the first to go in a funding pinch, so every meeting is a job interview. At the busiest I was juggling five or six projects at the same time. That's like having a different job every day of the week.

ZIERLER: And six different bosses, in a sense.

BELZ: And six different bosses. And six different teams. I enjoyed that period.

ZIERLER: You grew the company. You had employees.

BELZ: I started with part-time contractors and then ultimately employees.

ZIERLER: Was it all Southern California-based? Did you embrace remote possibilities at all?

BELZ: Remote work was not accepted as it is today. I took so many steps that sound archaic now. I installed a fax line in my house. I had a separate phone number ending in "00" because I thought that it sounded more professional. [laughs]

ZIERLER: [laughs]

BELZ: I had a post office box so that people would send mail to an address that wasn't my home. I had an all-in-one copier machine so that I could fax and scan and make copies, because faxing and scanning were important then. [laughs] It was a different time. People didn't think about remote the same way that they do now. Remote work was considered unprofessional then. I was particularly sensitive to that as a young mother.

ZIERLER: Was JPL always your biggest or even most important client?

BELZ: JPL was always a big client, but I did interesting projects for lots of innovative companies, like Avery Dennison. I did work in aerospace for HRL and Raytheon, and I learned about the oil and gas world and had projects with Occidental Petroleum and BP. I had a great project on triboelectric X-ray sources with UCLA. I wrote a commissioned report for the National Academies. Interesting people kept appearing in my network. It's a good roster in retrospect. My younger son keeps asking me how I did it because he is also attracted to this kind of work style, but it took me years to realize that it was not for everyone.

ZIERLER: What did you develop as your calling card? What would organizations know to come to you for?

BELZ: [laughs] A coach of mine would suggest taglines, like "We turn marketing into profit." I thought, if you're in a business, anything you do should turn into profit, so I used a tagline of "Transforming innovation into profit." This was years before other people were talking about innovation, 15 years ago that I had it on my cards and on my website. I would talk about technologies, finding use cases, and developing business models. I could translate between the technical and business worlds. Maybe that came from being bilingual and translating for my grandfather. The tagline worked.

ZIERLER: The MBA at Pepperdine, was that more a credential that was good for your career, or there was really stuff for you to learn?

BELZ: I wanted to understand everything about accounting and finance. I also took a great strategy class that crystallized many of the ideas I had been exploring. I wanted to understand how deals are done and how to architect them.

ZIERLER: It was a good program?

BELZ: It was a good program. It worked for me at the time. I had a small child, I was consulting, and I didn't want to work full time. Fortunately I never had to make decisions for money. That was an important personal value. I made decisions to accommodate my family needs and I felt fortunate that it was possible. I remember telling my college roommate, "I'm setting up a consulting practice," and she said, "You know, not everyone can do that." And I thought, "Maybe that's true." It was the first time that thought had occurred to me. [laughs]

ZIERLER: [laughs]

BELZ: I ran my practice for 18 years, even though I never thought it would go on that long. [laughs] But it just did.

ZIERLER: What were the connections that led to your initial appointment at USC?

BELZ: I had been invited to judge a technology commercialization contest at USC, long before people talked about Shark Tank models. I used to hire from the Caltech community to support technology assessments, and I wanted to do the same with MBA students. I reached out to the business school and said, "I'd like to teach a class." It turns out that people send letters and emails like that every day, and I had no idea. They said to me, "Would you like to join the faculty and be a full-time professor?" A consistent theme in my career is that I am strongly attracted to something that I've never done before, especially if I didn't anticipate it as an option. I tune in to opportunities from left field. So back to USC - I thought, "That's something I haven't done. Sure. [laughs] That would be fun." So, I joined the business school faculty and within two years, I started a crazy set of appointments and moves.

ZIERLER: You offered yourself up as an adjunct, and they said, "How about being a professor?" [laughs]

BELZ: That is correct! [laughs]

ZIERLER: That maybe has never happened before! I would have to be pretty confident about that.

BELZ: [laughs]

ZIERLER: Did you not jump at that opportunity?

BELZ: At the time, I was working closely with two different companies. One was the Caltech laser company Ondax, where I served on the board, and the other was a UCLA startup. I worried about the impact of a full-time job on my time commitment to make these companies successful. Isn't life interesting? [laughs]

ZIERLER: And now you're vice dean! [laughs]

BELZ: Exactly. I had a regular faculty appointment for a couple of years, but in my second year, someone brought me the solicitation for the NSF program called I-CorpsTM and said, "You are the perfect person to apply for this." It was designed to help academics commercialize their research. I said, "This is going to be so competitive, but I will try." At the time, I chaired a technology commercialization session for a major IEEE aerospace conference in Big Sky, Montana. That year, I had invited Fred Farina, the head of technology transfer at Caltech, to speak at my session.

ZIERLER: Ah, Fred, yes!

BELZ: Fred and I have kids who are the same ages and we were friends. He came to the conference, and we sat in the ski lodge at Big Sky, and our kids were running around everywhere, and I said, "Someone brought me this solicitation and said that I should apply, and the rules are that you must have a collaboration of three schools. Will you do it with me?" He said, "I'm concerned about the competition" – which was exactly what I had said! But then he said, "I trust you, so please connect with my team." Then I was introduced to colleagues at UCLA, and so the collaboration that applied was Caltech, UCLA, and USC, and I was in the lead role. Much to my shock we were funded. The Principal Investigator or PI had to be at the dean's level or higher, so the USC dean of engineering, Yannis Yortsos, agreed to serve as PI. That was how we started working closely together. And things started happening fast. I got deeply involved in strategy at the engineering school level, traveling extensively and working to expand the school's activities.

Two years later, I was traveling with a large USC team to India, and we were on a flight from Mumbai to Bangalore, and I said to Yannis, "I have become a flaky professor. I keep canceling and scrambling to find a guest lecturer." I had many friends from the technology startup community who enjoyed visiting my classes, and the students loved them, but I said, "My schedule is crazy. It's not fair to the students to position me as their professor when I keep traveling." He said, "Stop teaching! I've never had a vice dean of innovation. Would you like to create that role?" Remember, my trigger phrase is "I've never done that before"—so when he said, "I've never had this," I thought, "Well, I've never done it! It's perfect!" Of course I said yes. [laughs]

ZIERLER: [laughs]

BELZ: And that's how I became the first vice dean of innovation at the Viterbi School of Engineering!

ZIERLER: Now to go all the way back to your initial appointment, you said, "I'd like to be an adjunct," and they said, "How about being a professor?" and you replied, "No, adjunct is good," and that's what you went with?

BELZ: No, I said, "I will be a professor. I will try it for a year." I still had many clients. I signed on for the second year, but then I wrote the I-CorpsTM proposal and got funded. In the third year, we launched an interdisciplinary program at USC called the Iovine and Young Academy as a partnership between arts, business, and engineering.

ZIERLER: This is Dr. Dre we're talking about?

BELZ: This is Dr. Dre. Erica Muhl was the founding dean and a visionary leader for that program, and I wanted to work with her. In my third year at USC, I had an appointment in business, one in the Iovine and Young Academy, one in engineering, and a fourth appointment at Caltech.

ZIERLER: And you had your consulting.

BELZ: And I had my consulting.

ZIERLER: And you're a mom.

BELZ: When I think about that time, I don't know how I did it all. I wrote curricula. I redesigned classes. I developed strategies for the engineering school. I worked with my companies and hired like mad. I had so much energy then. [laughs]

ZIERLER: When did you consider winding down the consulting because USC could or should be exclusive for you?

BELZ: When I became vice dean the first time, I stopped looking for new clients. They still occasionally appeared, but I didn't do as much networking so that I could focus as vice dean. I finally closed my practice when I went into public service, but then new clients found me when I left Washington, and I started doing expert witness work. One nice benefit of consulting is that it can be a catch-all for many services.

ZIERLER: Before we get to 2016, the visiting professorship at Caltech, was that like you had a half an hour on Thursdays so you said, "Let me go to Caltech"?

BELZ: Yes, my fourth appointment was a visiting professorship at Caltech. The first year, I co-taught the course with Rob Chess and Ed Zschau. Rob was from Stanford, and Ed was from Princeton.

ZIERLER: Was Rob already a trustee at that point?

BELZ: He was, and I had taught at USC, so it was like a greatest hits album where we all brought our favorite creative approaches. The next year, I taught it alone. It was great fun.

ZIERLER: Being in PMA as a grad student and teaching in EAS, what was that like for you?

BELZ: When I was a postdoc, I was in Geological and Planetary Sciences where Ken Nealson had an appointment. Later I worked in Janet Hering's lab and taught a course in methods for environmental chemistry as my postdoc was finishing. So, I had been affiliated with EAS before. Caltech has six divisions; I was affiliated with three of them along the way. Which is a little bit ridiculous—

ZIERLER: [laughs]

BELZ: I enjoyed teaching the entrepreneurial strategy course in EAS. I was on campus a couple of days each week. I talked to Ken Pickar frequently because our student rosters overlapped quite a bit. The graduate students in my class were typically serious about commercializing their thesis research so we had meaningful conversations. It was so interesting!

ZIERLER: What was the reporting structure when you were named vice dean in 2016?

BELZ: I reported directly to the dean and worked very closely with him. That was the principal reason I stopped teaching at Caltech. I was committed to succeeding in a leadership role at USC.

ZIERLER: What vantage point did that give you in terms of looking at USC as a whole?

BELZ: It was fantastic. I learned about the economics and drivers of a university. When you're new to a leadership or administrative role, you learn what makes an organization not just sustainable, but thriving. I learned everything in that role.

ZIERLER: You innovated the role? There was no technology innovation and entrepreneurship program?

BELZ: No, there were a few activities but I built the office and recruited the first team. Today, a different Caltech graduate, Ellis Meng, has that role and has a team of 10 or 12 people reporting to her. When I first took on the role, I had only a couple of staffers. Yannis generously gave me resources and viewed them as investments.

ZIERLER: What was the mandate, and how does the mandate fit into how USC saw itself, both locally and nationally?

BELZ: The dean used ­to talk about catalyzing growth and impact as an important element of his vision. This role was designed to translate our engineering research into impact. Prior to my role, innovation and entrepreneurship were viewed as functions belonging in the business school. At that time, the university and the nation realized that startups come from technical fields of all kinds.

When I taught strategy, I used to start with the example of Starbucks. I would say, "Why do you go to Starbucks?" The students answer, "I like their coffee"; "It's very reliable"; all these clear reasons. Then somebody generally says, "I can get free Wi-Fi there." I would say, "Let's talk about free Wi-Fi." That's possible because of the cheap wireless chips in every laptop, plus the broadband infrastructure. So the important drivers of the Starbucks strategy are not just the ability to make a predictable cappuccino and th­e real estate choices, but that Starbucks can tap into an enormous communications network, and indeed tap into it easily with cheap wireless chips. Everything leverages technologies now.

Every university has many more entrepreneurship programs now. USC was not just part of that movement but helped lead it, by creating this role and cementing the idea that generating impact is a core function of an engineering school today. Can I tell you a different story, from my time at NSF?

ZIERLER: Please!

BELZ: We once had a visiting delegation from a smaller public university in the Southeast, with roughly 30 faculty members and their vice president of research. I said, "How many of you are considering starting companies based on your research?" Of the 30 faculty members, perhaps 29 raised their hands. Their vice president of research was stunned and his jaw dropped. He said, "I had no idea." I said, "You are surprised, but I am not." That's the transformation of the last 10 or 15 years in universities. I had the opportunity to lead a small part of it.

ZIERLER: Aspects of building up this initiative which are really brand new—it's really a bold initiative—in terms of how USC thought of itself, obviously everyone in Southern California knows it's a gem regionally, but was it seeing this initiative in national terms? Was it seeing itself as a national leader in this?

BELZ: When I took on the role, I started talking about global domination. I always look for [laughs] global domination. I wanted to discover models to be used nationally. That's how I ended up at NSF five years later. My program officer was a physicist named Steve Konsek and we talked about these models and experiments. One day Steve said to me, "You should come to NSF and be my boss." I had never had a program officer say this to me before! He sent me the public link to the posting, so I applied. And then I went.

ZIERLER: Did working in the innovation and entrepreneur space get you more involved in development at USC? Would you find yourself on calls with potential benefactors or corporations looking for partnerships?

BELZ: Yes. I have worked with our development team in the engineering school many times, and I implemented USC's first venture fund supported by benefactors. I led our venture fund's first investment – meaning that I identified the opportunity and created the investment process– for a company called Relativity Space, which is now worth several billion dollars and is a key player in the new space economy. That was founded by two graduates of the USC astronautics program, which is in itself a major change. Fifteen years ago, nobody used space and startups in the same sentence. In fact, I thought of them in my consulting as two different activities. I could be supporting JPL, or I was working with startups. There was no overlap. That is a major change today.

ZIERLER: Was there a curriculum development, or more broadly an educational component, to this program? Was this something where students, either undergrads or graduate students, could be involved or take classes that were co-listed in any way?

BELZ: It was heavily oriented toward education. The I-CorpsTM program was based on Steve Blank's Lean Startup course at Stanford. It was a sophisticated approach, to frame business development as the scientific method. He utilized a framework called the Business Model Canvas and taught a method to develop and test hypotheses of who would be your customers and why would they buy. It represented a different type of hypothesis than scientists ordinarily test, but it's the same thought process. He built an elegant structure that became the core curriculum of I-CorpsTM. These were ideas that we had been teaching at USC for many years—we called them customer logs and customer interviews—but his structure sharpened the focus on the steps to commercialize a technology successfully.

ZIERLER: I think I can imagine what your response would have been, because it's going to be a pattern at this point—when the NSF opportunity came up, was it as simple for you as, "This is new, I'll go ahead and do that"?

BELZ: [laughs] Yes. Seventy-five percent of it was that component. "That's something I've never done. That sounds interesting." So many jobs and roles had been created for me that I was actually fairly inexperienced at applying for a job through a standard process [laughs]. Plus my mother had been a physician with the Veterans Administration and took public service seriously. So, I was interested in giving back through public service. I feel strongly that I'm fortunate to be an American citizen.

ZIERLER: What about science policy, which, to state the obvious, was a very fraught issue during the Trump administration?

BELZ: There are so many aspects.

ZIERLER: Meaning that this was attractive that you could have a say in those discussions.

BELZ: Absolutely. I used to sit in meetings when I was an awardee, when I was a PI, and the NSF team would say, "Well, you can influence policy by tweaking this little part of the I-CorpsTM program." And I wondered, could we have impact if we did more than tweak? I had test-driven some ideas at USC around expanding access and creating opportunity for underserved groups, and to do them right you needed national scale and bigger budgets than those that I could access. I wanted to test those ideas.

ZIERLER: Did you leave the program at USC in a state where you felt good about handing it off to a successor? Had it reached some level of maturity after three years?

BELZ: I ran the programs for five years, two as a regular faculty member and three as vice dean. When I left I characterized it as, "Here is my apartment. You can move in. I left the refrigerator stocked. There are clean towels everywhere. [laughs]." I believed that I had left it ready for the next team to succeed. They ultimately replaced me with multiple people to do the different parts of my job, because I was doing so much at the time. [laughs]

ZIERLER: There's clearly only one you. That's not going to be replicated.

BELZ: Dave Eastman, my good friend and fellow board member from Ondax, took on the venture fund and the incubator that I developed in the Marina and has grown them far beyond my initial work. Stacyann Russell, who started as a student intern in my office, now leads USC's I-CorpsTM program, which has grown into a collaboration with eight or ten universities – I don't even know how many now. Alexandra Graddy-Reed is my co-author and a very talented economist – she took over running the MINERVA research group. As I mentioned earlier, Ellis Meng is the vice dean overseeing the entire operation.

I told Dean Yortsos that the greatest sign of my success is that I was able to go. I never wanted to build a cult around myself. I wanted to build something that would outlive me, because then, it becomes part of the institutional fabric. I had seen many efforts that were a flash in the pan because they were led by people trying to further their own profiles or businesses. I used a different rubric and worked at a larger scale.

ZIERLER: Were you open to the idea that this could be a full-time Washington new career for you, long term?

BELZ: The mechanism by which I went to Washington was limited to four years, paying for 100% of my time through a grant. I had planned to come home to USC. When I was in Washington, people naturally asked, and they asked frequently, "Do you want to stay?" I said, "Not now." I went to government with the idea that you are more effective if you go with an agenda and a fixed time period to achieve it, and then you ride off into the sunset. Ed Zschau and Rob Chess, my fellow professors at Caltech, first introduced me to this mindset. They had both worked in Washington and were extremely supportive of my going there.

ZIERLER: What was the transition like for you coming from this nimble program that you had built, relatively low bureaucracy, and coming to not just the NSF but the federal government in Washington, D.C.?

BELZ: [laughs]

ZIERLER: How did you adjust to that?

BELZ: [laughs] Very, very poorly!

ZIERLER: Like banging your head on the wall a lot?

BELZ: It was certainly a change. NSF is a relatively small agency with about 2,000 people. When I used to go to meetings at the Department of Energy, DOE, they would say, "What is your campus like?" and I would say "Campus?" The building has an east wing and a west wing and one hallway that represents the walk across campus. NSF is a special agency where an unusually high percentage of its workforce is PhD-level scientists, so it's different than other agencies. However, it is still government. I learned about the importance of process. A startup has horrible processes. When I taught, I would say, "Here's your organization chart at the beginning"—and it's a single box with the word "me" in it. Building a startup is building and filling more boxes. In some ways, government is the opposite. It's a complete organizational structure and you're adding content. It was eye-opening to lead in that environment. After 25 years of inventing my own jobs, that focus on process was new. [laughs]

ZIERLER: Meaning that you were put into a predefined position?

BELZ: I was put into a predefined position, with many processes that are necessary but were foreign to me.

ZIERLER: What was the job? What consumed your days?

BELZ: I oversaw a team of about 50 people and a $350 million annual budget. We funded about 300 companies per year, which works out to about one a day, and I oversaw the review process. I spent much of my time on personnel management and constantly interviewing because our division needed to grow, especially once we were launching the new TIP Directorate. I spent more time on hiring than I had in any of my previous roles. Also, my job was to represent the agency to Congressional staffers or potential partners from other agencies. There was a major outward-facing component. And I was constantly thinking about how to structure programs designed for translational research, or research designed to go from laboratory discovery to applications. I wanted to design programs smartly, for impact.

ZIERLER: How independent or not did you feel from White House and Trump policies?

BELZ: Certainly we ensured that we aligned with OSTP statements and policies.

ZIERLER: This is Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House.

BELZ: Correct, the Office of Science and Technology Policy. But the NSF director serves for six years at a time, and that is in part to decouple from the political process, even as an appointee. During my tenure I was mainly responding to the pandemic, and then the massive reorganization that elevated the role of technology commercialization within NSF.

ZIERLER: It's gross to think about benefiting from COVID, of course, but I can't help but ask, did you enjoy the best of both worlds in being able to complete your appointment at NSF but doing it from home in L.A.?

BELZ: It was wonderful to be with my family, but I missed being with my team. When I first got to NSF, we did a two-day retreat to brainstorm about the next couple of years. Even though our brainstorming was ultimately incomplete – of course we didn't anticipate the pandemic – still I missed that engagement. And it was challenging to lead. When you're working remotely and a colleague is struggling, the best path is to go out together for a cup of coffee to see if that person is okay.

ZIERLER: Totally.

BELZ: In Zoom land, there is no ability to take somebody out for a cup of coffee. You can try to mimic it by saying, "We'll meet at 10:00 a.m. and we'll have coffee together," but it's not the same. That was hard. The two-day retreat that we did with markers and whiteboards, you can't do anything like that in virtual work. We tried what I called micro-retreats, joining a call for 90 minutes with everyone adding to a shared document, but that's not the same either. Although I appreciated being with my family during the pandemic, I missed being with my team. I felt decoupled from them. It was difficult to see people suffering, not just through the pandemic's direct effects but the people who struggled to work in isolation.

ZIERLER: Do you feel like despite the pandemic and the limitations of remote interactions, you achieved what you wanted to, both in terms of what you learned and in terms of what you implemented, for your appointment?

BELZ: I achieved more than I had hoped. In addition to reorganizing all the digital and computational technologies, we launched a new commercialization topic of pharmaceutical technologies in December 2019. In fact, we announced it just 13 days before the first COVID case was reported in China. We were surprisingly ready for the influx of technology ideas that the pandemic sparked. At the same time we moved toward tripling our activities in life sciences and doubling what we were doing in environmental technologies. I left feeling that I had helped NSF anticipate and plan for technologies of national interest.

I felt strongly about increasing access in underserved communities, so we funded a program called the Inclusion in Innovation Initiative, i4, with the GEM Consortium. I was gratified that a thousand students had gone through that program by the time I left. That was a high priority for me. And I helped to shape all the programs in my purview, both to fund academic research and to fund startups. I particularly appreciated it because it was something that I did not anticipate in my career. I felt that my time at NSF followed the Jewish concept of "tikkun olam," which translates to "repairing the world". We are all obligated to repair the world, and at NSF I had that opportunity in a small way.

ZIERLER: What were the most important lessons learned from NSF that are directly relevant? You alluded before about just the proposal process. Are you bringing back information that is institutionally valuable to USC?

BELZ: The federal government is always looking for good people to offer new ideas for national benefit. I learned how to articulate ideas and connect the dots on serving the nation. One concrete lesson is how to read titles in Washington. For instance, what does a deputy director title mean? I was a principal, meaning a Division Director, and I had three talented people serve as my deputy during my term. The deputies are usually permanent federal employees, not rotators, and they are the institutional knowledge who can serve in interim leadership roles. It would be foolish to discredit deputies, because they know everything. You read titles differently once you have seen who fills them and how the organizational chart really works.

ZIERLER: The Transformative Initiatives opportunity, you knew this was going to be there for you when your NSF appointment was over?

BELZ: Nope. I went back to Yannis Yortsos, the same dean who created my first office, and he created yet another new role for me. We agreed that I would help support big university initiatives but with the freedom to identify other opportunities. When the DOD Microelectronics Commons was announced at a larger scale than we had anticipated, I reorganized my time to help form California DREAMS. I enjoy the autonomy that my role offers. The last time I was vice dean, I built an office and recruited for many roles. Now, I focus on enabling success for my colleagues on the faculty and staff.

My job at NSF was at a higher level than I had ever hoped to achieve, so I'm at an interesting vantage point in my career where I can help others succeed. In some ways, I have lived a Forrest Gump life. I land in these spaces that I don't expect, and then good things happen.

ZIERLER: Andrea, let's bring the conversation right to the present. In this new capacity at this stage of your career, enabling other people, to help them blossom their own careers, first of all how do you do that? What are the nuts and bolts of doing something that can feel like—where do you even begin with something like that? How do you go about that?

BELZ: I spend a lot of time listening to people so they feel heard and are willing to contribute to my crazy ideas. I work hard to create places where other people can shine. If I'm invited to an event, who can attend instead to give them a public opportunity? I don't need to be in front of the public anymore, although it seems to happen anyway. I have nothing to prove. I spend some time organizing my own deputy functions so others can have leadership roles. In my down time I try to catch up on reading, like coming up to speed on microchips for the DOD initiative, so that I can be conversant and speak the language of our defense and research partners. I had built my consulting practice translating between different worlds.

ZIERLER: Do you have a specific vision, like where does the Transformative Initiatives go during your leadership of it, and beyond, whatever is next for you?

BELZ: I am focused on the importance of investing in hardware as a national strategy, and developing ways to attract investment into hardware again. Ondax, the Caltech company that we ultimately sold, probably couldn't raise money today! It was a laser company founded in the first dot-com boom. The investment appetites and standards have changed so much that it would be unattractive today. That was one of the ideas that inspired me to go to NSF. I believed then, and I believe now, that a role of government is to address and mitigate risk that the private markets cannot take on, so the government must fund promising early-stage technologies particularly if they are unattractive to the private investment world. I care deeply about that conversation and have spent my career on all sides – investing in companies taking risks and addressing those issues, and funding appropriate risky technologies with public funds.

Another issue is to restore hardware development as a viable and important career option. That's an important national resource that we have unfortunately allowed to decay. When I was an undergrad, my STEM friends were usually electrical engineering majors, and today they're all computer science or CS majors. I graduated with Sergey Brin, and perhaps there were seven or ten computer science graduates that year? The scale of the change is incredible. I'm concentrating on recruitment and retention into hardware-focused disciplines.

Along those lines, I am also extremely focused on the research that we do in the MINERVA group, which is to use both conventional econometrics and newer AI tools to study the evolution of technologies and the role of public policy in advancing them. I am very interested in how we develop technologies to meet national needs.

ZIERLER: Now that we've worked right up to the present, for the last part of our talk I want to ask a few retrospective questions and then we'll end looking to the future. First, of course, what brings us together is Caltech. What has stayed with you from your Caltech and JPL days? What informs your sensibilities, your world views, your highly developed sense of what's possible?

BELZ: My world view is highly shaped by my experience at Caltech. I would define it as a community of excellence, where both of those elements – community and excellence - are equally critical. When I used to hire the first employees into a startup, I would say that great people want to work with other great people. So, how do you seed that process? How do you attract a core of talent? That is extremely important to me. A second sensibility is the honor code. I took my qualifying exam in a small library in Bridge Hall, and it was closed book, and there were probably 10,000 physics texts in the room. Working in that kind of environment, where you rely on your own abilities and your own resources, to answer the questions—

ZIERLER: And the trust. The trust that's put into you, to do the right thing.

BELZ: And the trust is central. The library door was closed. Nobody opened the door to see if I was reading the books or not. That attitude has informed every hiring decision I've ever made. We were just talking about helping other faculty members be successful and that means saying, "I will formulate an opportunity, and I trust you to go and run with it, and if you stumble, come back to me and we'll fix it together." That's another important element. When I came to Caltech, they said, "We expect every one of you to finish. There's no weeding out. We want you all to succeed." So, a culture of excellence has an embedded expectation that everyone can succeed. Can I tell you a short story?

ZIERLER: Please!

BELZ: When I was a graduate student, I worked with a postdoc named Mark Pitt. He had been a Caltech undergrad, then had gone to Princeton for grad school, then returned as a postdoc. He trained me in the lab. I remember once asking him a question, and in our next group meeting he stood up and said, "Andrea had this great question, and it was so insightful." I could feel my face turn hot, because I didn't think it was so insightful. He made me sound smarter than I felt! I don't remember the question but I remember how he treated me. I learned that when you are doing great work, there is plenty of credit to go around. Kindness is free, so why not use it liberally? I have tried to infuse these ideas in every organization where I've had the opportunity to affect culture. On the morning that we learned about winning the large DOD Microelectronics Commons grant, I spent hours emailing the administrative assistants and support staff who had helped us, so that they would feel recognized as part of the winning team. I've tried to emulate Mark's kindness.

Here's another lesson I drew from graduate school. Two of my fellow graduate students created an activity that they called the "Neato Club", where you presented your research to students in completely different fields. We would give talks completely unlike the technical seminars that we would usually deliver, and then we would go to the Ath for drinks afterwards. I was the third or fourth speaker in the series, right after the founders, which I took as a great compliment. Explaining highly technical material to bright people with no background in your field turned out to be a highly important skill. You can only do that if you come from a perspective of respect. And humor, right? Imagine naming a group the Neato Club. The words respect, humor, and excellence describe much of my Caltech experience.

ZIERLER: Now that you're at a stage of your career where you're really focused on, as we discussed earlier, elevating others—colleagues, protégés, things like that—can you look at your, as you put it, nonlinear path, as a model? Would you suggest that to anybody else?

BELZ: [laughs] No. In many ways, it was so painful. I felt lonely when I took these steps that my friends and classmates weren't doing. Today you can't imagine how people responded when I told them that I was consulting, because no one was doing it then, and it felt awkward and awful. And I talked about working with startups when very few people were doing it. I talked about the need for startup thinking in the aerospace industry and the players in the field just didn't understand me. There was no blueprint so I didn't know what I was building.

I was scared that I had wasted this great education on a career that felt like a mirage, and that I had taken irreversible steps toward a complete catastrophe. I learned a lot from the Pasadena Angels and they were kind to me, but it was hard when I was the only woman in the room, and that went on for years. I remember that they asked me to evalute a deal for a baby clothes manufacturer. I had to tell them, "I buy baby clothes but that doesn't mean that I understand the business. Please send me something I understand, like lasers." When Ondax was funded I was the first woman to lead a due diligence process and represent them on a board, and that was a difficult and lonely episode, but ultimately I had the support of both the investors and the board that I joined.

But it's like sailing, where you don't actually turn right or left. You tack, you zigzag, you change direction little by little. The nonlinearity happened because I had support at each zigzag. I once heard that mentoring can be defined in four words, namely, "Have one, be one." I was fortunate to have outstanding advisors at Maryland and then Caltech. Then I had so many mentors who appeared when I needed them. And I was surrounded by students I respected greatly who are my friends today, thirty years later. Even when my path seemed so unusual, they always treated me with genuine curiosity and respect. Later Dean Yortsos gave me a platform to express myself, and then my message resonated at NSF, but it took many years to get there.

I don't know if I would suggest my career to anyone else, but I believe that Caltech attracts the kind of people who could pursue nonlinear careers. I walked out with so many arrows in my quiver.

ZIERLER: Finally, Andrea, looking to the future, there's clearly something next for you, right? This is a theme of your career. What are you open to? What do you want to accomplish in this current role? Just in broad categories of all that you have to offer, what are you open to?

BELZ: I would very much like to serve on a corporate board again. I have learned so much about generating value for investors and customers, and bringing innovation from ideation to scale. I care deeply about moving innovation from research to returns, and supporting that process in large companies. I would love to return to public service as an unparalleled opportunity for impact at scale. I like writing papers on innovation management and public-private partnerships. I would like to do another startup and especially to build the team, but not the way I did when I was younger. I would give better advice about handling team issues. Startups don't fail because of their technologies but of team drama that keeps them from learning about the marketplace. I'm much more interested in how teams form today.

ZIERLER: This has been such a fun and interesting conversation. I want to thank you so much for spending this time.

BELZ: Thank you for the opportunity.