Allison Macfarlane (Evan Cantwell)

The tenure of her predecessor, Gregory B. Jaczko, was marked by controversy, including complaints that he mistreated women on his staff and conflicts with other commissioners. Supporters say Macfarlane will provide a steady hand for the agency — in other words, leadership that’s solid as, uh, a rock.

She chats with the Loop about swapping “professor” for “chairwoman” — as well as her fondness for “Downton Abbey” and her aversion to heights and lentils.

Which cabinet secretary would you most like to hang out with, and what would you do?

The women Secretaries. We’d go out and discuss Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent Atlantic article about family/work balance over a glass of wine.

What’s your favorite non-work-related Web site/app/magazine?

Capital Weather Gang. I want to know whether to expect another dreadful power outage…

People would be surprised to know that I ___________.

Ran four geological expeditions to the Himalayas, trekking for hundreds of miles and camping out at high altitude with a group of American and Nepali scientists and a team of sherpas. It really soured me on lentils and rice, which I ate every day for weeks at a time.

What’s your dream job?

Running a foundation or a research institute. As a professor, I always loved to help create knowledge and to mentor young researchers. Now, running a federal agency, I’ve become interested in administration as a sort of intellectual puzzle to solve. Running a foundation or institute would combine the two interests.

What motivated you to go into public service?

My mentor, White House science advisor John Holdren, taught me that scientists have an obligation to put their knowledge to use in the service of the American people. There’s a place for pure research, but I’ve been most drawn to science that makes a difference in people’s lives.

Favorite TV show?

Downton Abbey.” It’s like a combination of good chocolate and champagne, absolutely delicious. And since my husband grew up in Britain, it feeds my fascination for the British class system.

Which character from that show do you most identify with?

Mary, like me, the eldest daughter. She’s caught between doing what she wants and what she thinks is expected of her. She lived in a transitional moment for women. You see her struggling as a woman who senses new possibilities but is hemmed in by old expectations. She made some bad choices in the first and second series, but I’m hopeful she’ll come into her own in the upcoming series.

What subject, other than your work, do you know most about?

Food and food production. I love cooking for my husband and kids — I think of it as applied chemistry — and I’ve become more and more interested in understanding what’s in what I eat and what all those additives and preservatives do to our bodies. Reading Michael Pollan’s work completely changed the way I think about food.

What’s the best job you’ve ever had?

The worst was house cleaner. Apart from my current job, which I love, my favorite job was being a research fellow at Stanford University for a year: nothing to do but read and write, cycle and hike in near perfect weather surrounded by really smart people.

I’m scared of _____

Heights. My family drove up Mont Ventoux in France last month, and I had my eyes shut whenever there weren’t any guard rails.

What’s one word you wish people would use to describe you?


You can draft one person in the private sector….

Chuck Vest, the former President of MIT. He’s the smartest, most effective administrator I’ve ever known. But very modest. You could put him in charge of any agency and he’d improve it. Maybe NRC could find a really hard problem for him to solve.

Background Check is a Loop feature in which we grill various government types about their lives on and off the clock. Please send suggestions for future subjects to