May 13, 2022
Government affairs and pandemic preparedness with Sim Ahuja
By Bill Brink
Sim Ahuja works in the Washington, DC offices of GSK, a UK-based global healthcare company. She’s a Communications and Government Affairs Future Leader Associate, to be specific, and she is currently on the corporate policy team, the third and final leg of GSK’s associate rotational program.
The bulk of her workload? Infectious disease policy and pandemic preparedness.
“It’s really relevant right now, but it does make me feel a little bit cynical, because I’m reading all this material and I’m discussing all these things and I’m like, ‘Wow, we should have all started on this a lot earlier,” she said.
Ahuja graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic’s initial surge, with degrees in both International Relations and Politics and Decision Science. The Houston native had not considered CMU before joining her brother on a visit, but she loved the campus, liked what she heard in a meeting with an admissions officer, and entered with a proclivity for foreign affairs and political science from her time on the speech and debate team in high school.
Her introduction to the Institute for Politics and Strategy, like that of many students, came in the form of Professor Geoff McGovern’s Decision Processes of American Political Institutions.
“He was so open to having people come to office hours to talk about the class, or also just anything in general,” she said. “I really enjoyed his class, but I enjoyed him as a mentor more than anything else as well. He’s someone that I’ve consulted on a lot of my major decisions.”
The following semester, Ahuja took Decision Science for International Relations with Professor Baruch Fischhoff, which started her down a path toward her second major.
“We were studying how single individual leaders and people can lead to such drastic international events,” she said. “I really enjoyed learning more about that.”
Ahuja served as a resident assistant for two years. She also took her speech and debate skills for a spin as a member of Carnegie Mellon’s Mock Trial team.
“It was one of the best experiences,” Ahuja said. “I feel like every year, I was such good friends with the people on that team and I really learned a lot about what interested me in law. I also gained some general experience on what potentially being a lawyer would look like.”
During her sophomore year, Ahuja arranged her class schedule to accommodate an internship at Ceisler Media & Issue Advocacy, a statewide public relations firm. The Pittsburgh office is small, which suited Ahuja well; she didn’t have a ton of media relations experience. She loved her colleagues and discovered an important notion.
“That was my first time thinking, maybe I don’t want to work in politics politics, like a political office or Capitol Hill, or the White House,” she said. “Maybe I want to work in this intersection of private and public.”
Ahuja got her Hill experience that summer, interning in Washington, DC in the office of Representative Kevin Yoder. Far from the glamorous external perception of Capitol Hill, Ahuja handled constituent communications and gave tours, which she can now do in her sleep. It’s no accident she works in DC now.
“I think that was really important to understand early on in my college career, what kind of jobs I want to do, where I want to live,” she said.
Since high school, Ahuja had wanted to study at the London School of Economics – she almost applied there for undergrad – and she got her chance in 2018-2019. Spending an entire academic year there allowed her to capitalize on the familiarity and comfort gained during the first semester, rather than heading home right as she hit her stride at the end of the first semester.
“As an international relations major, getting to experience a different country was really important and helped me better understand not just the political situation in the US, but also what other countries are like as well,” she said.
Her experience at Ceisler and her desire to find the point where private corporations and public institutions intersect led her close to home, to ExxonMobil’s Houston campus, the summer before her senior year. She lived with her parents, got up at 5 a.m. to make her carpool, and enjoyed her time as a Public and Government Affairs intern.
“It was a really great experience to better understand the corporate intersection into government and external engagement generally,” she said. “That’s where I figured out that that’s what I wanted to do, at least right after I graduate, if not longer than that.”
That’s what she does now with GSK.
“This is the rotation that I really worked for, and I asked for, and I talked to a lot of people to try and make it happen,” Ahuja said. “I was really excited about working in government affairs.”
Ahuja would like to attend law school, but not before another year or two in the workforce. Most people in leadership positions in government affairs have graduate degrees, she said, and it helps to know how the government is supposed to function when working in government relations. These are decisions she still runs by her former professors, and she encouraged Carnegie Mellon students to do the same.
“Biggest piece of advice would be to use your professors and talk to them,” she said. “Every professor I’ve talked to has, at the very least, been interested in what I wanted to do next. It’s really important to find the professors who will help you with what you want to do next and be there as mentors.”