Alumni Snapshot: Jennifer Cerully

“A lot of people ask me about the movie ‘Dr. Strangelove,’” says Jennifer Cerully (CS 2004)

  • B.S., computer science, Carnegie Mellon University, 2004
  • M.S., psychology, University of Pittsburgh, 2008
  • Ph.D., psychology, University of Pittsburgh, 2011

For those of us who grew up during the Cold War, the RAND Corporation might conjure up classic movie stereotypes of sterile, well-lit corridors, lined with giant mainframe computers. “A lot of people ask me about the movie ‘Dr. Strangelove,’” says Jennifer Cerully (CS 2004), a behavioral and social scientist at RAND’s Pittsburgh office, located on Craig Street, next to CMU’s Software Engineering Institute.

But she hadn’t seen the movie until after she began working at RAND—and what Cerully has found at RAND isn’t so strange. In fact, it’s very human-focused.

“There’s real potential here for your work to make an impact,” she says. “We do research and policy analysis, in whatever form that takes. We work in many different sectors—health, education, defense, labor, population studies—and our independence and objectivity is very much valued. So when I’m doing research, I’m never pressured to make the data tell a certain story. That was one factor that was very important for me before coming to RAND.”

Cerully is currently studying mental health care as it’s provided to Americans in the armed forces, and looking for areas where the Department of Defense can improve the delivery and timeliness of those services. “There’s a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness,” she says. “We’ve come in to evaluate programs and mental health awareness campaigns the department has in place, and make recommendations for reducing stigma and other barriers to care.”

“I’m really hoping my work will make it a little easier for military service members to get good quality mental health care if they need it,” Cerully says.

It’s not the path on which Cerully expected to find herself when—inspired by high school programs designed to introduce women to science and technology careers—she arrived at CMU as a computer science undergraduate. “I still remember the privilege in my freshman immigration course of hearing Herb Simon speak,” she says. But by the end of her degree, Cerully says, “I found I didn’t really like programming, so the idea of doing that as a career wasn’t very appealing to me.” Working in information technology wasn’t attractive, either.

What she did enjoy was studying how humans interact with one another—and that led her, while at CMU, to earn a double major in social and decision sciences, working with CMU professor Jennifer Lerner, who’s now at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Upon graduation, Cerully moved across Panther Hollow to the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her master’s degree in psychology, and then her Ph.D. in 2011. She joined RAND the same year.

“I thought I was making a complete split from computer science by moving into social science, but I’ve found that my computer science degree helps me a lot,” Cerully says. “Having learned very early on how to code helps me in very specific ways—doing syntax-based analysis, for instance—and where I really started to see the difference was in graduate school. I had a different approach to problem-solving than some of my peers, and it was because I’d been taught to think in a different way.”

And computer science intersects her work in many areas. For example, on one project, she’s working with a doctoral student at Pardee RAND Graduate School to use machine learning to examine the discourse about mental health and mental illness via discussions that take place on Twitter.

A native of Altoona in central Pennsylvania, Cerully says she didn’t expect to stay in Pittsburgh forever. But now she’s married to a fellow CMU grad, Jonathan Chu (CS’04), who works at the SEI (they met outside of Wean 7500) and says, together with their daughter, they’re a “real CMU family.” She still enjoys coming back to campus to talk to students.

“In some ways, I feel like I struggled as an undergraduate about what direction I was going to go,” Cerully says. “That’s actually very common. People take all kinds of paths, and I love to go back to CMU and talk to students about that. You can kind of see the relief on their faces when they realize it’s not strange at all to be wrestling with those issues.” —Jason Togyer (DC’96)

For More Information: 

Jason Togyer | 412-268-8721 |