March 31, 2021
Alumni Spotlight: Dana Kim
By Bill Brink
When Dana Kim returns to the Carnegie Mellon University Washington Semester Program to speak to the current students, she tells them to consider their narrative.
“Don’t just make random decisions based on how you’re feeling in that moment,” Kim said. “You can do a shift like me, from pre-med to law school to policy. You can make those changes, but make sure you’re telling a story.”
Kim speaks from experience.
She has always taken a one-step-at-a-time approach and let the lessons learned along the way guide her decision-making. The common denominator that drives Kim is her desire to serve the public.
Viewed from the outside, her professional path might appear nonlinear, but after dealing with unforeseen setbacks she turned an internship into a career. Soon, she will add one more twist: Kim, a Research Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who focuses on satellite imagery analysis of North Korea, will leave her job in two weeks to pursue something new.
“I don’t know what I’m doing yet, but I’ve gotten complacent in my job, in that I was focused so hard on doing so well in it, I forgot to think about what I want to do and where I want my career to go,” said Kim, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 2016 with a degree in International Relations and Politics and a minor in Biomedical Engineering.
Kim’s decision to attend Carnegie Mellon illustrated the breadth of her interests and skills. She was an artist in high school and she knew CMU has a good art program. She also knew that its science and technology bona fides would appease strict parents who did not want her to go to art school. She applied as a Psychology and Biology major and submitted a photography portfolio with the intention of switching to fine arts.
“My one thing is, I never fall asleep in class,” Kim said. “I took Intro to Psych and it was putting me to sleep every single lecture. I was like, maybe this isn’t for me. I was looking at a list of majors that CMU offered and I looked at International Relations and Politics, and I was like, that sounds cool.”
Kim loved her classes with three IPS faculty members who were affiliated with the RAND Corporation: Drs. Molly Dunigan, Geoffrey McGovern, and Colin Clarke. She took an Engineering and Public Policy class with Deanna Matthews, the department’s Associate Department Head for Undergraduate Affairs, and enjoyed it. The class with the biggest effect on her was a constitutional law class with Mary Jo Miller, an Adjunct Professor in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and that inspired her to complete three internships in various portions of the judicial system.
Kim graduated in December 2016, staying an extra semester to complete her minor, and as graduation approached, she simultaneously studied for the LSAT and applied to the Peace Corps. She got in, skipped the LSAT, and spent four months preparing to deploy to Ghana, only to learn that she was disqualified because she had previously been in therapy. Despite having overcome her previous struggles with mental health during college, the Corps held firm, and she was adrift – until IPS Deputy Director Emily Half reached out about joining what was then known as the Center for International Relations and Politics research lab. She spent a year working with Taube Professor for International Relations and Politics Kiron Skinner.
“She definitely taught me how to work, which was great,” Kim said.
After her fellowship in the CIRP lab ended, Kim found herself in need of a break and moved to Hawaii. She was intent on chilling and surfing forever, but her path had more detours ahead. She moved back to Washington, DC, for an opportunity that did not work out. Looking for a job, she conducted informational interviews, one of which was with Thomas Karako, a Senior Fellow at CSIS and one of her former professors in the Washington Semester Program. He suggested that she apply for an internship in the satellite imagery department, which she did, and she eventually received a full-time position.
Every morning, Kim monitors headlines out of South Korea. When her administrative duties are complete, she’ll scour Google Earth, looking for anything new or different above the 38th parallel. If she finds something, she’ll consult with the satellite imagery expert, who might then order high-quality commercial images that they’ll examine pixel by pixel.
“It’s not a software that you can train yourself in,” Kim said. “You have to be taught what you’re looking for.”
CSIS will sometimes publish its findings, which both informs the public about North Korea’s military capabilities and provides cover for government officials – who are doing the same thing, but with classified results – to discuss them with Congress or the public.
“When public officials are talking about, ‘Oh, I was able to accomplish X, Y, and Z in these talks,’ and they’re citing all these outdated facilities that don’t have much significance to North Korea’s overall strategic plan, the public doesn’t know that,” Kim said. “The public doesn’t know that those facilities that the public official got to close down don’t actually do anything.”
The pinnacle of her work occurred after the Hanoi Summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in 2019. Satellite imagery revealed that North Korea had rebuilt portions of its Sohae Launch Facility after agreeing to halt construction in the previous year.
“We turned it around super quick, broke the headline, and then our images and our report were all over US media and international media,” Kim said. “It was referenced in a State Department testimony. Through the grapevine, we heard that our report was being talked about in the White House.”
Studying North Korea also provided Kim with a cool convergence of job and degree. When Kim reappeared in public after a long absence bred speculation that he died, he had limp and a mark on his wrist. Kim knew from her Surgery for Engineers and Medical Devices classes, part of her Biomechanical Engineering minor, exactly what happened.
“He got a stint,” she said. “He for sure got a stint.”
Kim’s advice to current or future IRP students, then, should come as no surprise.
“You go to one of the best STEM schools in America and/or the world. Take a technical class,” she said. “Technology and tech and AI and all those things, data, that’s already omnipresent in our society and that is only going to become more the case.”
Kim’s next step is once again unclear. Grad school is on the horizon, be it law school, business school, or , but she’s leaning toward something technical, something you can’t pick up on the job.
As for right now? “Maybe I’ll go save the turtles in the Galapagos,” she said. “I’m a very one-step-at-a-time kind of person. Check back in six months.”