Cortney Weinbaum

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Alumni Spotlight

Cortney Weinbaum

BS Physics, University of Michigan 

What she does:
Weinbaum is a national security researcher at RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank. In her role, she helps intelligence and defense agencies tackle difficult intelligence topics, identify new emerging technologies to invest in, and craft cyber strategies and approaches.

How she got there:
Weinbaum was deeply passionate about physics throughout her undergraduate career, but like many physics students, she was unsure of her career path. When the US was attacked on September 11, 2001, she was in her junior year. She immediately applied for and received a summer internship at the Defense Intelligence Agency, which led to a full-time position postgraduation in 2003. In this role, Weinbaum designed new intelligence collection systems and focused on radio frequency electromagnetic systems.

Weinbaum branched out from physics and spent 10 years as a consultant helping defense and intelligence agencies improve their analytic tradecraft, strategic planning, and operations. Eventually, she realized that she most enjoyed future-focused projects, so she moved to a think tank to help national security agencies improve for the future.

Best part of her job:
“My goal is to do no harm and to leave the intelligence community stronger and better than it was when I entered. I am deeply motivated by the need to make a difference, to keep the US and the world safe, and to try to move the world’s hardest security topics in the right direction.”

Most challenging part about her job:
Weinbaum acknowledges that there are many challenges in her work, the first being that national security workers must understand that no single person will save the world or create world peace. "One person alone can start a war, but we all have to work together for peace and security." Accepting these limitations, Weinbaum admits, is a challenge for someone who is goal oriented and results driven.
She was attracted to physics because of its elegant theories and laws. "But there are no elegant laws of nature for national security. Instead, the world is filled with billions of individuals, groups, organizations, and nation-states, all vying to achieve power and control and reach their own goals."

Why is it important for scientists to be good communicators?
“We each have to be our own advocates. You might discover the theory of everything, but if you can’t explain it to anyone, then no one will know about it. At every stage in your career you will need funding for projects, you will want to get promoted to the next level, or you will want to share the importance of your discoveries. Often the audiences who will make these decisions are not physicists. They are policymakers, government leaders, executives, and others, and the language they speak is not the language of scientific journals. And then, if they are going to advocate for your cause, they will need to recommunicate it to their stakeholders, their constituents, their board of directors, and others who have even less understanding of physics and interest in your issue. I am constantly asking myself why my audience should care about a topic and what they will find compelling about the issue.” //

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