Profile with Priya Aiyar

Priya Aiyar (Massachusetts & New College 1996) is the Deputy General Counsel for Environment and Nuclear Programs at the U.S. Department of Energy. Before her involvement in government service, Ms. Aiyar was a partner at the law firm of Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans & Figel. She also clerked for Judge Merrick Garland of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and Justice Stephen Breyer of the U.S. Supreme Court. Priya holds a J.D. from Yale Law School, an MPhil in Politics from the University of Oxford, and an A.B. in Social Studies from Harvard College. 

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Priya Aiyar: I guess I call Washington, D.C. home. I’ve been here for over 12 years. It’s funny though. I’m originally from near San Francisco, and I still fundamentally think of that as home.

Rhodes Project: What was the last book you couldn’t put down?

Priya Aiyar: Middlemarch by George Eliot. I’ve already read it two or three times, but I like to re-read things. It’s such a wonderful book and still relevant to so many of the issues people think about today. It discusses the different roles of social structures and individual personalities in determining how people’s lives turn out. It’s a fascinating social study that seems more relevant every time I read it.

Rhodes Project: What is currently playing on your iPod?

Priya Aiyar: Yale has some history courses that they put online in podcasts that I was listening to. Occasionally I listen to random English Lit lectures that I find online. I like that I can listen to them for five minutes during my commute and still feel like I learned something.

Rhodes Project: When you were a kid, what did you want to do later in life?

Priya Aiyar: I went through lots of phases. I think I wanted to be a marine biologist at some point. Then I wanted to be a doctor. I also wanted to be a ballerina, but I think that was pretty short-lived.

Rhodes Project: What is an average day at work like?

Priya Aiyar: There’s not much of an average day because it’s so dependent on what is going on with our secretary and in the world that day. There’s a lot of reading and writing as well as a combination of very short-fused tasks and long-fused tasks. There are a lot of issues that pop up throughout the day. Someone wants advice on something that you have to research and develop a view on within an hour. On the other hand, one of the environmental cases I’ve been working on, for example, is a clean-up of a Cold War era weapons site that has been going on for decades. That’s an issue that is not going to be resolved during my tenure here, but that we’re hoping to set on the path to be fully resolved years down the road.

Rhodes Project: What is the most rewarding part of your job now?

Priya Aiyar: Getting to feel like we’re a part of the work the government is doing on energy and climate issues. I think most of us who work here feel that these issues are some of the biggest that are facing us in the country right now. Our work has an economic perspective, a national security perspective, and an environmental perspective. Energy is really at the center of everything. The president gave a big speech this week in which he talked about our moral obligation to start addressing these problems. I think we all really believe in that, so getting to be even a small part of it is very rewarding.

Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging part?

Priya Aiyar: The department I work in is very big and there are a lot of moving parts. Sometimes when you want to try to make a decision or make a change it’s a little bit like turning a battleship. It can be difficult to build consensus among all the people who have an interest in what you are doing. Navigating this political climate can be challenging as well.

Rhodes Project: If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?

Priya Aiyar: I think I would want to read minds. I’d have to be able to tune it out though, because I’m sure there would be many occasions when I really wouldn’t want to hear what people are thinking. But I feel like if I knew what other people were thinking, that would be kind of the core for me.

Rhodes Project: What do like to do in your free time?

Priya Aiyar: I like to read. I like to travel, though lately I haven’t been doing as much as I would like. I feel that getting out of your routine as much as you can is really important.  I also like to enjoy all the great cultural stuff we have in D.C.—museums and other attractions. There’s always something interesting going on here.

Rhodes Project: Who are some of your role models?

Priya Aiyar: To be honest – rather than famous people or historical figures – I think my real role models are my parents. They took such a huge risk in coming to this country when they did. It was the 1960s and they had to start with no social network. They built up a community of friends and family and were really successful at what they did. They were able to let me start so far ahead of where they had. I can’t imagine making the sort of life-changing decisions my parents made in their twenties to start over in a completely new place.

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