From a Field Trip to a Forever Fascination – A Conversation with Anja Malawi Brandon, SGS Class of 2008

Welcome to the latest piece in our alum series. This month we spoke with Anja Malawi Brandon from the SGS class of 2008 about her favorite memories from middle school, SGS’s focus on STEM and STEAM education, and how a field trip to the Seattle Aquarium sent her down a path to working in oceans and plastics advising for the United States Senate! 

As the daughter of SGS’s first Head of School, Marja Brandon, what was it like at SGS in the very early days?

I was quite literally there in its foundational days as a member of the inaugural fifth grade class. I remember the inaugural board meetings as they were first taking place in our home, even before SGS had its temporary buildings. And then I was there during the construction of the “temporary” buildings, which still make up SGS’s current home. I am so excited that we are now able to start the capital campaign for a new space. It was a second home and it always felt that way. 

What makes SGS unique? What characteristics set the school apart?

It’s incredibly welcoming and a very empowering space. We were all treated like adults – not to say we weren’t kids who could have fun and explore and have our own imaginations – but we were treated like we were in charge of our own education, our own self, and our own desires. It instilled a lot of ownership over what I wanted to do for my education and myself. Those are the types of lessons that stick with you beyond the curriculum. 

Are there any significant memories that stand out to you when you look back on your time at SGS?

Well actually, most of my career can be traced back to SGS. In fifth grade, we spent two or three weeks at Woodland Park Zoo, and then two or three weeks at the Seattle Aquarium. I absolutely fell in love with the aquarium – I was completely hooked. I kept in contact with the woman we worked with there, and basically, I emailed her every six months until I was old enough to volunteer at the aquarium. They let me start a year early, and I volunteered from ninth to twelfth grade as a Youth Ocean Advocate where I helped start a conservation program on plastic pollution. I took this experience with me all the way to college where I found a professor that was doing the work I wanted to do, and after much persistence, I convinced him to let me in his lab, which eventually turned into a PhD. Now I’m working in the US Senate as a science policy advisor working on landmark plastic pollution legislation.

SGS offered a breadth of experiences that gave everyone an opportunity to find what they really loved. I know I found mine!

When looking at SGS as an institution, in what topics or areas do they really lead?

It goes back to SGS core principles – like anti-bias work. This has been a part of its mission from the start, and it is more important now than ever. This was reflected both in the very thoughtful time dedicated to anti-bias conversations and having more explicit curriculum around the topic. It was also integrated throughout the SGS community in our conversations and actions. 

Anja (3rd row right, in light blue) at an Obama rally with her classmates in 2008.

SGS also leads in its integrated approach to STEM and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) education. For example, we had a music lesson where we learned about the notes as fractions, and it was a moment where all of these pieces – math and art – came together. Also in Spanish class, we discussed social studies in Spanish.

Also, the education style of Stand and Deliver. That approach from very early on, having you practice as a young woman standing up and owning your space and your knowledge and delivering at culmination events was integral to my experience at SGS.

What was your path after SGS and what are you up to now?

After attending high school at Holy Names, I went to Stanford University for undergrad. They have a program where you can get your Master’s degree at the same time as your Bachelor’s. I talked to the professor I had been doing research with and asked if I stayed for my Master’s, if I could continue on for a PhD. So, I stayed and ended up finishing my PhD in Environmental Engineering and Science in 2020. 

While I was in my PhD I participated in a great program called the Rising Environmental Leaders program, where they take grad students and postdocs from Stanford to Washington DC for a week to learn about science policy and how you can make your science more relevant and engage with policymakers. I found I really liked the big picture approach of science policy. I was doing really awesome research, but I was missing the more direct application. I applied for the AAAS Congressional Science Fellowship, a one-year program on Capitol Hill working full-time as a member of staff for a Congressperson’s office or a committee office. So now I am working in the United States Senate as a science policy advisor. I get to advise on anything and everything that comes through the climate and energy team and am helping lead the portfolio on all things oceans and plastics.

Besides revealing your love for marine biology, how did your time at SGS influence the way you work now?

SGS teaches you to go seek out opportunities. I got into my research down this very long path because I found a professor that was doing this work. After he didn’t respond by email, as a freshman, I went and knocked on a tenured professor’s door whom I had never met, and told him, “I like your research, and I want to do this work. Can I work with you?” That kind of persistence and self-empowerment – doing the follow-up work and knowing what you want – definitely comes from SGS. 

Also, my desire to work in science policy was partially fueled by the fact that I learned early on that you don’t just look at a problem from one way – you have to understand the broader context and how it all fits together. Beyond just being a curious, scientist-type, I’m used to approaching things from multiple perspectives, partially from the unique training I had through SGS. In my job now, for example, I’ve had zero formal training on how to pitch a Senator and idea, but week one, I had to do that and just thought, “Sure! I’ll give it a shot!” I think it all goes back to learning to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations and trusting in yourself and your knowledge. 

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