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Profiles In Versatility

Physicists in International Aid: Developing Careers that Serve Humanity

By Alaina G. Levine

Students from an alternative energy class in Cochabamba, Bolivia
In a class on alternative energy taught by physicist Augusta Abrahamse, students participate in a solar car race at Universidad Privada Boliviana in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
Photo courtesy of Augusta Abrahamse

In a class on alternative energy taught by physicist Augusta Abrahamse, students participate in a solar car race at Universidad Privada Boliviana in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

As a PhD student in cosmology at UC Davis, Augusta Abrahamse said she “got tired of programming all day on a very small set of problems that was only relevant to a small group of people.” So she took a year off from grad school and volunteered in Nicaragua and Bolivia on energy and rural development projects. Her time in Latin America opened her eyes to an entirely new ecosystem of challenges that as a physicist she was poised to conquer: issues pertaining to international aid, development, and even scientific diplomacy. She returned to the States, refreshed. She finished her doctorate while taking classes on international development project design and then went back to Bolivia for a faculty position at the Universidad Privada Boliviana in Cochabamba.

Abrahamse knew she wanted to advance her expertise in international aid and policy. Selected for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Technology (S&T) Policy Fellowship, she was placed in the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). She was lucky to come to the Agency during the fall of 2013, while it was expanding its science and technology portfolio. She was assigned to the data and analytics team.

By coincidence, she was paired with another physicist, Eric King, who is also an AAAS S&T Policy Fellow. King, who received his PhD in planetary physics from UCLA in 2009, “always had a taste for difficult problems,” he says. “I was always interested in doing something to make people’s lives better here on Earth.” Frustrated after the Sandy Hook school shootings by Congressional inaction on identity checks prior to firearms purchases, King launched a non-profit, GunByGun.org, to support community gun buy-back programs.

The two physicists are essentially “data evangelists,” says King. “We are trying to promote and facilitate the use of quantified evidence for decision-making” in funding and other programmatic opportunities within the agency. To that end, “we are examining innovative sources of data we haven’t tapped for development purposes before,” explains Abrahamse.

Social media is at the top of the list. “If we can use social media to better understand conditions that might affect populations,” she says, this will improve deployment of resources to endangered communities. For example, the team is considering how twitter could be used to mine data in an emergency, such as a tsunami or earthquake, or Google searches about flu-like symptoms could pinpoint where an outbreak might be occurring.

Ali Douraghy, another AAAS S &T Policy Fellow, came to a career in international development through his love of languages. While an undergraduate in biomedical engineering at UC San Diego, he took a year off to study Arabic at the American University in Cairo. “This changed everything,” he says, recounting how he traveled across the Middle East and even into Pakistan. When he returned stateside, he pursued a PhD in biomedical physics at UCLA while furthering his studies in Arabic. Upon graduation, he headed to the United Arab Emirates on a Fulbright Fellowship to help the nation improve their medical imaging capabilities by adopting technology such as PET scans. “I was itching to get back to the Middle East,” he says.

When President Obama delivered his “New Beginning” speech at Cairo University in 2009, in which he discussed how the US was going to use science and technology as a new tool for engaging the Middle East, it resonated with Douraghy. “I knew I wanted to be part of this new policy,” he says. He soon landed a Fellowship at the National Academy of Sciences Office of the Foreign Secretaries, which enabled his segue into the AAAS program.

As an AAAS Fellow, USAID created a new position for Douraghy, allowing him to engage in science diplomacy and create conduits for better cooperation specifically with the Middle East. His projects have included working with the joint science and technology fund between the U.S. and Egypt to enable bi-national scientific collaboration. More recently, as a Science Diplomacy Fellow based at the US mission in Jakarta, Douraghy helps connect US and Indonesian researchers, oversees funding initiatives between scientists in the two countries, and serves as a policy advisor on science and technology issues.

Of course there are many paths to a career in international development. Alan Hurd, for example, currently serves as an executive advisor to Los Alamos National Lab and also consults for the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). “The IAEA’s mission is to help countries that choose to develop nuclear energy,” he describes. “It is truly uplifting to work with people from Uganda or Nigeria, for example, to help them improve their peaceful nuclear technology capabilities.”

These benefits are outcomes of effective science diplomacy, in which “science can provide advice to inform and support foreign policy objectives,” and “diplomacy can facilitate international scientific cooperation.” Hurd became excited about science diplomacy as a Franklin Fellow at the Department of State and continues that interest by serving as the Chair of the APS Committee on International Scientific Affairs. Recently, he had the opportunity to review IAEA developments of Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME), a third-generation synchrotron light source under construction in Jordan (see also the Back Page, p. 8). Its research partners include Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Pakistan, Iran, and other nations, and the collaborations have been completely harmonious. “Everyone checks their politics at the door,” he says. “Only scientists could pull this off.”

Some of the physicists were surprised that their educational background served as a successful platform on which to craft a career in international relations. “I thought I would feel like a fish out of water as a physicist in a government agency, but this is not true,” says King. In fact, they all agree that physics has given them an advantage in making a significant impact in this new arena. “Physics has given me a foundation to understand a little bit of everything,” says Abrahamse. King sees parallels in his physics studies with projects in international development, as both are “really big and complicated, with a lot of moving parts and elements that can’t ever be accounted for,” he says. “You have to be open to different mechanisms to solve really complex problems” in both worlds. And Douraghy agrees that science diplomacy in particular is like a complex system. “It is very rare that things unfold in a linear fashion,” he says.

The work is incredibly rewarding, the physicists say, because they know they are making a difference on the ground with individual scientists and communities and in international accord through their impact on policy. Douraghy says that the best part of his job is “helping to advance development in critical areas for Indonesia, while helping to create more avenues of collaboration” like student exchanges and research partnerships between Indonesia and the United States.

For scientists interested in pursuing careers in international development and science diplomacy, Abrahamse suggests getting involved with organizations like the AAAS and Engineers Without Borders, which she participated in as a graduate student. Join relevant committees in APS and start networking, adds Hurd. “We have an obligation to work across borders,” he adds. “Every interaction of that sort helps reduce global tension and promotes economic stability. And every scientist is doing this even if they don’t realize it. We’re all diplomats.”

Alaina G. Levine is the author of Networking for Nerds (Wiley, 2014) and President of Quantum Success Solutions, a science career and professional development consulting enterprise. She can be contacted through www.alainalevine.com, or followed on twitter @AlainaGLevine.


“New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy”, AAAS and The Royal Society, 2010, http://www.aaas.org/sites/default/files/New_Frontiers.pdf

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